Punctuated Equilibrium and Memetic Accumulation

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A few posts ago I talked about memetic evolution. As a result of this post one of my readers, Mark, and I had an in depth discussion about what mechanism, exactly, I was trying to describe and whether there really is such a thing as memetic evolution. Mark is a scientist specializing in oncology research (he also has a blog, which you should check out) and he pointed out that evolution is exceptionally complicated and that many people use the term to describe lots of things that aren’t actually evolution by natural selection. Particularly when they’re trying to use it by way of analogy which I was. As part of our discussion a lot of things were clarified for me, and I think I’ve tightened up the analogy and hopefully gotten rid of most of the issues Mark pointed out. This post is about sharing the additional insights which came out of that discussion.

I.

Mark was, of course, correct, there are in fact lots of pitfalls involved in the discussion of evolution and selection, and even if you manage to avoid making any big mistakes there are still numerous specifics that can trip you up as well. For example, most people don’t realize that there are two competing theories regarding the rate at which evolution occurs. And the difference between these two theories turns out to be very important. Not only in general but also for the point I want to make.

The first theory, and the one initially put forward by Darwin, is phyletic gradualism. Under this theory the creation of new species happens very gradually, almost imperceptibly as small changes accumulate over tens of thousands of years. Because of how gradual this process is, you might not end up with a clear line where you can say that one species has changed into another, and, insofar as a layman thinks about evolution with any rigor, they probably envision it working something like this.

The second theory, which was proposed only in 1972, by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, is called punctuated equilibrium. This theory holds that species appear fairly suddenly in response to some rare and geologically rapid event (the punctuation) and that once a species appears that it ends up being relatively stable (the equilibrium). To reiterate, I’m no expert, but it’s my impression that this theory has the most support among scientists, particularly when you’re talking about the big evolutionary events, like speciation. To be clear both kinds of evolution, gradual and punctuated, appear to be taking place, but the latter is more impactful, and more important, particularly when the survival of a given species is really in question.

Having, hopefully, grounded our understanding and discussion of evolution on a somewhat firmer footing, we are still left with the question of how much of that understanding and discussion maps cleanly to the topic of cultural evolution, and beyond that to the more speculative topic of memetic evolution. For instance, insofar as cultural evolution is adaptive, is this adaptation gradual? Or does it operate more along the lines of the punctuated equilibrium model? I’m not entirely sure what would count as hard data when considering these questions, but at the level of anecdote, I’m inclined to believe that the situation is similar to genetic evolution, both forms occur, but that the cultural selection which occurs gradually ends up being less impactful than cultural selection which happens at times of rapid change and extreme crisis.

As I said this is mostly at the level of anecdote, but consider the example of Germany. It’s hard to argue that Germany didn’t have a long martial tradition, starting with their first appearance in the records of the Roman Empire and continuing down through the centuries to the two World Wars. Would you say they still have that culture today? I think most people would agree that they don’t, and that it all changed during the extreme crisis at the end of World War II. Sure there have been many gradual changes to German culture over the years, but the fact that there’s also numerous long-standing stereotypes about Germans would seem to indicate that a relatively stable equilibrium existed as well. From where I sit, this example has all the elements you’d expect if cultural evolution also happened according to the punctuated equilibrium model.  

Another example would be the creation of the United States of America. Evolution through natural selection concerns itself with the creation of new species. The parallel in cultural evolution would be the creation of a new culture or nation, and this is an example of exactly that. And, once again, it happened over the course of a few years where things were rapidly changing under crisis conditions. Additionally what resulted was not some incremental change in English culture (though there are obvious connections) but an entirely new culture forged in the fires of the Revolutionary War and the many debates over governments and rights

The more I consider the question the more I am convinced that there are numerous examples of punctuated equilibrium with respect to cultural evolution. I suspect all of the examples of nations in crisis given by Jared Diamond in his recent book Upheaval (see my review), would end up being examples of the punctuated equilibrium model of cultural evolution as well. And of course these are successful “mutations”, if cultural evolution is anything like biological evolution most mutations are going to end in failure. Is that perhaps the best way of describing communism and fascism?

Obviously not all cultural changes are so large, as I said, I’m sure that things also change gradually, but we would appear to have less to fear from those changes. Sure the vast majority will fail just like all “mutations”, but that failure should be much easier to recover from. Much less disastrous than the analogous “speciation” of adopting something like communism.

II.

If you’ve followed me this far and you accept (even if only for the sake of argument) that punctuated equilibrium applies not only to biological evolution, but to cultural evolution as well, then we’re finally ready to revisit memetic evolution, though right off the bat I’m going to dump the word “evolution”. One of Mark’s bigger contributions in the discussion we ended up having was to point out that once we’ve reached this point that things have been stretched so far that using the term evolution conceals more than it reveals, particularly if we’re more interested in the punctuated equilibrium model of evolution. So we need a new term, but before we get to that what exactly are we talking about? And, in what sense are we talking about something separate and interesting?  

When considering the punctuated equilibrium model most of the attention ends up on the punctuation part, but what’s happening during the equilibrium part? Here I’m going to quote liberally from Mark:

[The punctuated equilibrium model] posits [that] major selection events might be somewhat uncommon.  As such, we would expect to see accumulations of multiple different mutations, all present in a species’ gene pool simultaneously.  The longer the period of time free of selection, the greater the potential for diverse new mutations within the species. Since anything directly lethal is going to weed itself out fairly quickly, this enriches for potentially-beneficial mutations.  With all these mutations lying around, it’s possible for individuals to even have two or more traits that might not be adaptive on their own but that function very well together. This period of stability can be thought of as ‘good’ in that is allows for much greater variability to enter the population.

Along comes the selection event – the filter, removing anything that can’t pass through a particular challenge – and most of that diversity disappears.  However, since the population experienced a long period of growth and mutation without being subject to a filter, it’s possible that the adaptation that made it through the filter is more complex – is a bigger change – than the kind of single-mutation adaptation you would see from a series of rapid filters.  Populations that instead pass through serial filtering events will only be able to select based on single-mutation traits.

….We expect to have multiple possible pro-adaptive traits at any given time, waiting to pass through the next, unexpected, filter and join future generations.  Thus, memetic evolution is simply a sub-process of cultural evolution. It would be as meaningless to speak of it in isolation as it would be to talk about accumulating mutations prior to selection events (filters) when speaking of biological evolution.

…Memetic ‘evolution’ is simply another name for cultural evolution prior to selecting events. 

Some of this is obviously speculative, but on the whole Mark’s comments were fantastic, and really helped me to understand something that had previously eluded me, and I agree with everything he said, with one exception… I don’t think it’s “meaningless to speak of it in isolation”. I think “it” is very important to talk about. What is “it”? What is this thing that’s worth discussing, but which is not evolution? I’m going to call it “memetic accumulation”. 

III.

For most of history the rate of accumulation for genetic mutations has probably been fairly static. I assume that during periods of greater radiation (if any) that it might have increased, or perhaps the greater the variety of life the greater the space for mutations to occur and perhaps there are other factors as well, but I don’t see any evidence that there were periods where it was significantly faster or slower. There is the Cambrian Explosion, but remember we’re talking about the rate of accumulation, not the rate of evolution or of speciation, and while it was an “explosion” for many things, I don’t think it was an explosion in the accumulation of mutations. In other words I think the rate of mutation accumulation with natural evolution has been pretty constant. 

Even when humans entered the scene and started the selective breeding of domesticated animals, this didn’t change the mutation rate, even for the animals in question. (CRISPR, however may be another matter.) We just introduced a lot more filters and selection events. So, if mutations are relatively constant in natural evolution, what about cultural evolution? Has that rate also been constant? I would argue that it hasn’t, and this, more than anything else, is why it’s worth discussing. I suppose, given the fact that humans can introduce new ideas, new potential memes into the space of culture whenever they feel like it, that there are a great many things which could affect the speed at which memetic accumulation occurs. But certainly technology and progress has to have a large impact on that speed, and almost exclusively in the direction of speeding it up. In fact, “something which speeds up the rate of memetic accumulation” is not a half bad definition of progress. But beyond that, might technology and progress have any other effect than generating ideas quickly?

With the advent of global communication and social media, we are moving ever more rapidly in the direction of creating a single ecosystem for ideas, and I don’t think we’ve fully come to terms with what that means or how it will play out. Certainly ideas propagate faster, and I would also say we end up with a handful of “apex ideas” similar to the idea of an apex predator. Which is to say that we’re in a space where a memetically fit idea is able to very quickly outcompete all the other ideas among people susceptible to that idea. (Notice the increase in the number of people who believe in conspiracy theories.) Leading to a stratification at the level of ideas rather than at the level of a community or nation. Basically, social media and global communication have allowed invasive species/ideas to go everywhere.

On top of all this there’s one final thing which needs to be pointed out, humans are more removed from issues of actual survival than ever before. Toss all of this together and we have rapid memetic generation, but which results in a relatively barren collection of a few dominant memes/ideologies, none of which are likely to have anything to do with actual survival. Now I’m aware that this is something of an oversimplification, culture is still complex and varied, and people still worry about survival, but we have nevertheless lost an awful lot of both those qualities.

Finally, if I’ve convinced you that memetic accumulation is speeding up, then even if you disagree with me about everything else, you might at least want to examine what the potential consequences of that are with respect to cultural evolution.

IV.

Having examined what the modern state of memetic accumulation is within the equilibrium part of the model, what does all of this mean for the eventual “punctuation”? How does our rapid, barren and superficial method of memetic accumulation play out when we actually run into a selection event? Into rapidly changing crisis conditions? Well that’s hard to say, though none of those elements would appear to be positive.

Just by itself, the rapid part isn’t necessarily bad. Perhaps if culture is moving rapidly, then, by the time the eventual crisis rolls around, we will be in some location uniquely well suited for surviving that crisis, a location we would not have reached had we not been moving so quickly. And certainly if there were a bunch of cultures all speeding off towards their own unique locations we might have some expectation that at least one of these locations would be exactly the spot they should be in, but this is where the lack of variety comes into play, we’re not all choosing different locations where we can survive the potential crisis, we seem to all be journeying as quickly as we can towards a small handful of locations, and the rapid bit means if it’s not the right place we will have gone an awfully long distance in the wrong direction. Furthermore, what do these locations look like? If we were really concerned about survival, they would hopefully be strongholds, but if we don’t factor in survival I would think they’re more likely to end up looking like expensive penthouses. Dwellings which look really nice and are great for entertaining, but also the last location you’d want to be in when the zombie apocalypse starts. There’s obviously still a lot of variety in these dwellings, but can anyone honestly tell me we’re not building a lot more penthouses than strongholds these days?

There also seems to be significant effort being spent on getting people to abandon locations which proved to be strongholds in the past. I think I’ve already said this, but it bears repeating, there are essentially three ways to choose a “location” we can choose them randomly, which is essentially what natural evolution is doing. We can choose one based on whether it sounds good or not, but in this sense, as I already pointed out, we’re probably not choosing a stronghold so much as a nice place to live. Or we can choose one based on what’s worked in the past. Any option where we choose is going to be better than random (one would hope) but it’s not clear to me that “sounds good” is definitely better than “worked in the past” (in fact, I strongly suspect it’s worse) and in any event it’s probably best to have cultures in both types of locations.

To be clear, we don’t know which location will best withstand the eventual crisis, because we don’t know what that crisis will look like, but you could certainly see how changing the way in which memetic accumulation happens could change the likelihood of being in the right location. And I hope we can agree on this, even if you don’t agree with me on exactly how memetic accumulation has changed

But beyond all this, there’s probably more bad news, particularly if you believe Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s contention, that in addition to changing to speed of memetic accumulation, that progress and technology has also changed the nature of potential crises as well. That we have made them less frequent, but in the process we’ve also made them larger. As a real world example, lots of people feel that there is no safe location (both figuratively and literally) if the crisis ends up being full scale nuclear war or runaway climate change (I disagree, but I’ve already covered that in past posts). Both crises that have only been made possible recently.

I will freely admit that I’ve followed a long chain of assumptions to get to this point, but strip all that away and I would contend that the two initial ideas, 1) that cultural evolution also follows a pattern of punctuated equilibrium, and 2) that technology and progress can change the rate at which cultural mutations/memes accumulate, are both pretty solid. And both of those together should be enough to introduce serious uncertainty into any claims that conditions are following some long-term, unstoppable, positive trend.

A couple of final things to think about, which I leave as an exercise for the reader:

Are we at a point of “punctuation” right now? If so how’s it looking?

Could memetic accumulation get so out of whack that it actually causes the crisis?


With this post I’ve gone a long way down a pretty obscure road. It you like that sort of thing consider donating. If you don’t like that sort of thing you should also consider donating, but I think it will make less of a difference.


Worrying Too Much About the Last Thing and Not Enough About the Next Thing

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As I mentioned in my last post one of the books I read last month was Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat into Victory, by Michael Korda which covers the beginnings of World War II from the surrender of the Sudetenland up through the retreat from Dunkirk. As I mentioned one of the things that struck me the most from reading the book was the assertion that before the war France had a reputation as the “world’s preeminent military power”. And that in large part the disaster which befell the allies was due to a severe underestimation of German military might (after all, hadn’t they lost the last war?) and a severe overestimation of the opposing might of the French. 

As someone who knows how that all turned out (France defeated in a stunning six weeks) the idea that pre-World War II France might ever have been considered the “world’s preeminent military power” seems ridiculous, and yet according to Korda that was precisely what most people thought. It’s difficult to ignore how it all turned out, but if you attempt it, you might be able to see where that reputation might have developed. Not only had they grimly held on for over four years in some of the worst combat conditions ever, and, as I said, eventually triumphed. But apparently the genius and success of Napoleon lingered on as well, even at a remove of 130 years.

Because of this reputation, at various points both the British and the Germans, though on opposite sides of things, made significant strategic decisions based on the French’s perceived martial prowess. The biggest effect of these decisions was wasting resources that could have been better spent elsewhere. In the British case they kept sending over more and more planes, convinced that, just as in World War I, the French line would eventually hold if they just had a little more help. This almost ended in disaster since, later, during the Battle of Britain, they needed every plane they could get their hands on. On the German side, and this is more speculative, it certainly seems possible that the ease with which the Germans defeated the French contributed to the disastrous decision to invade Russia. Particularly if the French had the better reputation militarily, which seems to have been the case. Closer to the events of the book, the Germans certainly prioritized dealing with the French over crushing the remnants of the British forces that were trapped at Dunkirk. Who knows how things would have gone had they reversed those priorities.

This shouldn’t be surprising, people frequently end up fighting the last war, and in fact the exact period the book describes contains one of the best examples of that, the Maginot Line. World War I had been a war of static defense, World War II, or at least the Battle of France, was all about mobility. Regular readers may remember that I recently mentioned that the Maginot line kind of got a bad rap, and indeed it does, and in particular I don’t think that it should be used as an example for why walls have never worked. But all of this is another example of the more general principle I want to illustrate. People’s attitudes are shaped by examples they can easily call to mind, rather than by considering all possibilities. And in particular people are bad at accounting for the fact that if something just happened, it’s possible that it is in fact the thing least likely to happen again. The name for this, is Availability Bias or the Availability Heuristic, and it was first uncovered by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Wikipedia explains it thusly:

The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that occurs when people make judgments about the probability of events on the basis of how easy it is to think of examples. The availability heuristic operates on the notion that, “if you can think of it, it must be important.” The availability of consequences associated with an action is positively related to perceptions of the magnitude of the consequences of that action. In other words, the easier it is to recall the consequences of something, the greater we perceive these consequences to be. Sometimes, this heuristic is beneficial, but the frequencies at which events come to mind are usually not accurate reflections of the probabilities of such events in real life.

As I was reading Alone, and mulling over the idea of France as the “world’s preeminent military power”, and realizing that it represented something of an availability bias, it also occurred to me that we might be doing something similar when it comes to ideology, in particular the ideologies we’re worried about. From where I sit there’s a lot of worry about nazis, and fascists more broadly. And to be fair I’m sure there are nazis out there, and their ideology is pretty repugnant, but how much of our worry is based on the horrors inflicted by the Nazis in World War II and how much of our worry is based on the power and influence they actually possess right now? In other words, how much of it is based on the reputation they built up in the past, and how much is based on 2019 reality? My argument would be that it’s far more the former than the latter.

In making this argument, I don’t imagine it’s going to take much to convince anyone reading this that the Nazis were uniquely horrible. And that further whatever reputation they have is deserved. But all of this should be a point in favor of my position. Yes they were scary, no one is arguing with that, but it doesn’t naturally follow that they are scary now. To begin with, we generally implement the best safeguards against terrifying things which have happened recently. Is there any reason to suspect that we haven’t done that with fascism? It’s hard to imagine how we could have more thoroughly crushed the countries from which it sprang. But, you may counter, “We’re not worried about Germany and Japan! We’re worried about fascists and nazis here!” Well allow me to borrow a couple of points from a previous post, where I also touched on this issue.

-Looking at the sub-reddits most associated with the far right the number of subscribers to the biggest (r/The_Donald) is 538,762 while r/aww a subreddit dedicated to cute animals sits at 16,360,969

-If we look at the two biggest far-right rallies, Charlottesville and a rally shortly after that, in Boston. The number of demonstrators was always completely overwhelmed by the number of counter demonstrators. The Charlottesville rally was answered by 130 counter rallies held all over the nation the very next day. And the Boston free speech rally had 25 “far right demonstrators in attendance” as compared to 40,000 counter-protestors.

Neither of these statistics makes it seem like we’re on the verge of tipping over into fascism anytime soon. Nevertheless, I’m guessing there are people who are going to continue to object, pointing out that whatever else you want to say about disparity and protests or historical fascism. Donald Trump got elected!

I agree this is a big data point, 62,984,828 people did vote for Trump, and whatever the numbers might be for Charlottesville and Boston, 63 million people is not a number we can ignore. Clearly Trump has a lot of support. But I think anyone who makes this point is skipping over one very critical question. Is Trump a nazi? Or a fascist? Or a white supremacist? Or even a white nationalist? I don’t think he is. And I think to whatever extent people apply those labels to him or his supporters they’re doing it precisely for the reason I just mentioned. All of those groups were recently very powerful and very scary. They are not doing it because those terms reflect the reality of 2019. They use those labels because they’re maximally impactful, not because they’re maximally accurate. 

Lots of people have pointed out that Trump isn’t Hitler and that the US is unlikely to descend into Facsism anytime soon (here’s Tyler Cowen making that argument.) Though fewer than you might think (which, once again, supports my point). But I’d like to point out five reasons for why it’s very unlikely which probably don’t get as much press as they should.

  1. Any path to long standing power requires some kind of unassailable base. In most cases this ends up being the military. What evidence is there that Trump is popular enough there (or really anywhere) to pull off some sort of fascist coup?
  2. As our prime example it’s useful to look at all the places that supported Hitler. In particular people don’t realize that he had huge support in academia. I think it’s fair to say that the exact opposite situation exists now.
  3. People look at Nazi Germany somewhat in isolation. You can’t understand Nazi Germany without understanding how bad things got in the Weimar Republic. No similar situation exists in America.
  4. Even though it probably goes without saying I haven’t seen very many people mentioning the fact that Trump isn’t anywhere close to being as effective a leader as Hitler was. In particular look at Trump’s lieutenants vs. Hitlers.
  5. Finally feet on the ground matter. The fact that there were 25 people on one side (the side people are worried about) and 40,000 on the other does matter. 

I’d like to expand on this last point a little bit. Recently over on Slate Star Codex, Scott Alexander put forth the idea that LGBT rights represents the most visible manifestation of a new civic religion. That over the last few years the country has started replacing the old civic religion of reverence for the founders and the constitution with a new one reverencing the pursuit of social justice. He made this point mostly through the methodology of comparing the old “rite” of the 4th of July parade, with the new “rite” of the Gay Pride Parade. There’s a lot to be said about that comparison, most of which I’ll leave for another time, but this does bring up one question which is very germane to our current discussion: under what standard are the two examples Alexander offers up civic religions but not Nazism? I don’t think there is one, in fact I think Nazism was clearly a civic religion. To go farther is there anyone who has taken power, particularly through revolution or coup, without being able to draw on a religion of some sort, civic or otherwise? What civic religion would Trump draw on if he was going to bring fascism to the United States? I understand that an argument could be made that Trump took advantage of the old civic religion of patriotism in order to be elected, but it’s hard to see how he would go on to repurpose that same religion to underpin a descent into fascism, especially given how resilient this religion has been in the past to that exact threat.

Additionally, if any major change is going to require the backing of a civic religion why would we worry about patriotism which has been around for a long time without any noticeable fascist proclivities, and is, in any case, starting to lose much of its appeal, when there’s a bold and vibrant new civic religion with most of the points I mentioned above on it’s side. Let’s go through them again:

  1. An unassailable base: No, social justice warriors, despite the warrior part, do not have control over the military, but they’ve got a pretty rabid base, and as I’ve argued before, the courts are largely on their side as well.
  2. Broad support: It’s hard to imagine how academia could be more supportive. In fact it’s hard to find any place that’s not supportive. Certainly corporations have aligned themselves solidly on the side of social justice.
  3. Drawing strength from earlier set-backs and tragedy: Hitler was undoing the wrongs of the Treaty of Versailles and the weakness of the Weimar Republic. Whatever you think about the grievances of poor white Trump supporters there are nothing compared to the (perceived) wrongs of those clamoring for social justice. 
  4. Effective leadership: This may in fact be the only thing holding them back, but there’s a field of 24 candidates out there, some of whom seem pretty galvanizing. 
  5. Feet on the ground: See my point above about the 130 counter rallies. 

To be clear, I am not arguing that social justice is headed for a future with as much death and destruction as World War II era Nazis. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, perhaps it will be just as all of its proponents claim, the dawn of a never ending age of peace, harmony and prosperity. I sure hope so. That said we do have plenty of examples of ideologies which started out with the best of intentions but which ended up committing untold atrocities. Obviously communism is a great example, but you could also toss just about every revolution ever into that bucket as well. 

Where does all of this leave us? First it seems unlikely that nazis and fascists are very well positioned to cause the kind of large scale problems we should really be worried about. Also, there’s plenty of reasons to believe that our biases would push us towards overstating the danger, on top of that. Beyond all that there is a least one ideology which appears better positioned for a dramatic rise in power, meaning that if we’re just interested in taking precautions at a minimum we should add them to the list alongside the fascists. Which is to say that I’m not trying to talk you out of worrying about fascists, I’m trying to talk you into being more broad minded when you consider where dangers might emerge. 

Yes this is only one, and probably reflects my own biases, but there are certainly others as well. At the turn of the last century everyone was worried about anarchists. As well they might be in 1901 they managed to assassinate President Mckinley (what have the American fascists done that’s as bad as that?) And there are people who say that even today we should worry more about anarchism than fascism. Other people seem unduly fascinated with the dangers and evils of libertarianism (sample headline, Rise of the techno-Libertarians: The 5 most socially destructive aspects of Silicon Valley). If there is a weaker major political movement than the libertarians I’m not aware of it, but fine, add them to the list too. But above all, whatever your list is and how ever you make it, spend less time worrying about the last thing and more time worrying about the next thing.


I will say that out of all the things to worry about bloggers carry the least potential danger of anything. Though maybe if one of us had a bunch of money? If you want to see how dangerous I can actually get, consider donating.


Books I Finished in June of 2019 (With One Podcast Series)

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Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis (Reviewed earlier in separate post.)


Then It Fell Apart

By: Moby

320 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: B+

Who should read this book?

If you read Moby’s previous autobiography Porcelain and enjoyed it, I think you’ll enjoy this one as well. 

If you have not read Porcelain, I would definitely recommend reading it first. It’s a better book and chronologically it comes first. 

Representative passage:

After the show I drank champagne and vodka in my dressing room with Ewan McGregor. After a few drinks I decided that he and I should go out and drink more, but that I should be naked. Sandy, my tour manager, urged me, “Moby, at least put on a towel.” So I went out in downtown Melbourne wearing a towel. No shoes. No clothes. Just a towel. Ewan and I stumbled from bar to bar, getting drunker and drunker. At the end of the night we ended up in a subterranean bar filled with Australian celebrities. I’d had ten or fifteen drinks, so I went to the bathroom to pee, and found myself standing at a urinal next to Russell Crowe. He zipped up his pants, and then pushed me against the wall of the bathroom and started screaming at me. “Uh, we’ve never met,” I tried to say. “Why are you yelling at me?” He never told me, but he kept me pinned against the wall while he shouted and screamed. After a minute he lost interest, cursed a few times, and stumbled out of the bathroom. I went back to the bar and told Ewan, “Russell Crowe just yelled at me.” 

“I wouldn’t worry about it. He yells at everyone.”

Criticisms

I read Porcelain last month, knowing that Then It Fell Apart was about to be released, and as you may or may not recall I quite enjoyed it. This book was not as good. And it was almost entirely due to the very depressing sameness of nearly every story. To set the scene, the last book ended just before the release of Play. Play ended up being a gigantic worldwide success, giving Moby all the money and fame anyone could possibly want, and of course, it wasn’t enough, and he spends the entire book desperately, suicidally unhappy. The book in fact opens with a suicide attempt.

He does just about every dumb thing you can imagine to try to fill the gaping, empty hole that is his soul, and everything he tries ends up being a disaster. The level of sex and drugs and alcohol in this book is beyond staggering, and it’s so obvious from the outside what he should stop doing, and equally so obvious what he should be doing instead. After hundreds of pages where he does neither, it starts to wear you down.

Lest you think the entire book is composed of these disasters, he does alternate stories of his debauchery with stories from his past. I enjoyed these parts more, though they were also mostly depressing.

Thoughts

This book was in the news above and beyond what might normally be expected because of Moby’s description of his relationship with Natalie Portman. Moby claimed they dated. Portman was in her teens at the time (18) and claims it was far more stalkerish. Moby profusely apologized and canceled his book tour. Having actually read the parts about Portman, and having read them before I saw that it had made the news I’m going to say that I feel like the whole thing was overblown. He didn’t claim he took her virginity, or something sensational like that. He claims he spent time with her (which appears to be the case), and certainly he characterized this time as dating, but I’m not even 100% sure he uses that actual word. The whole thing actually came across as very chaste. All of which is to say, I agree, Moby screwed up, but I think people made a lot more out of it than was really warranted.

There was one other incident from the book that struck me as particularly interesting. One of the reasons why he can’t get his life under control is that the merest hint of a romantic commitment causes him to experience intense panic attacks. This would be one thing if it had always been present, the source either genetic or buried in the mists of childhood, but as Moby tells it, it all started after a particularly bad LSD trip. As he describes it before then he had had several moderately successful long-term relationships, and was in fact involved in one that appeared headed for marriage at the time of the bad trip. In talking to people with more “domain experience” than me this seems either unbelievable or very uncommon, but it also seems like lots of drugs have a few rare but catastrophic side effects. Accordingly I’m not inclined to dismiss it out of hand, and if it did happen the way he describes, it’s pretty sad, since it’s entirely possible that without these panic attacks that he would have had a much easier time getting his life under control.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

Even if you try really, really hard, money can’t buy you happiness. Particularly if you’re going to mistake hedonism for happiness.


Fall; or, Dodge in Hell: A Novel

By: Neal Stephenson

880 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: B-

Who should read this book?

If you’ve liked everything else Stephenson has written you’ll probably like this, though it’s unlikely to be your favorite.

If you love mythology and devoured Bulfinch or something similar when you were a kid you’ll probably like the book.

Representative passage:

In the Garden lived a boy and a girl. Trees and flowers, herbs, vines, bees, birds, and beasts of various kinds lived there too. But there were no others like them. The Garden was circumscribed on three sides by a sheer wall of stone, and on the fourth side by the Palace. Above was sky, where clouds danced in the day and stars wheeled at night. Below was earth, where plants of many kinds spread their roots.

Special recognition of how horrible Stephenson is at writing sex scenes:

She took a step forward, leaving maybe a quarter of an inch clearance between her belly and the tip of his boxer-tented doodle. “It comes from thinking about mortality, right? Leads to a ‘life is short—let’s go’ mentality.”

He pulled her into him and mashed his doodle, bolt upright, against her stomach. She wrapped her arms around his neck for purchase and mashed back. They went on to perform sexual intercourse on the big pile of T-shirts on the rug.

Thoughts and criticisms free of spoilers

Stephenson is adept at creating rich, inviting worlds. Sometimes those worlds seem fairly realistic, the world of Fall is not one of them. I’m sure part of that is that Fall starts in the present day and then extends into the near future, making the problems of realism much easier to spot. This did bother me less than other people, (for example see Robin Hanson’s criticism) but it still detracted from the novel overall.

In previous Stephenson novels, my sense was that he was frequently going off on small tangents. Generally these were delightful. In his later works, particularly this one and Seveneves the tangents seem much longer, whole dramatic subplots that are aborted before they can really go anywhere interesting. Both Seveneves and Fall felt like they would have worked better as two separate books. And with Fall I could even see the argument for three.

Thoughts and criticisms with mild spoilers

Before reading Fall I saw several things saying that Stephenson tackles fake news and extremism on the internet, but that he doesn’t go nearly far enough. I think this says far more about the times we live in than about the book or Stephenson. My sense is that these days everyone wants all art to be a commentary on today’s problems, and what’s even more ideal is if it’s directly critical of Trump. That everything that has the potential to be a polemic should be a polemic. As I said in the last section I do think the extremism subplot felt tacked on, but I don’t think that’s what people are complaining about, I think they’re complaining that the identification of the righteous and the wicked needed to be clearer.

If the section on internet extremism is one book, than the other section is a book of modern mythology. The online consensus was to favor the section on extremism (even if it didn’t go far enough) over the mythology section. In my opinion that’s exactly backwards. I thoroughly enjoyed the mythology section, while the section on extremism was more bizarre than revelatory. 

In Stephenson’s last book, Seveneves, one of my greatest disappointments was that there was never a scene where someone unloaded on Julia Bliss Flaherty for how stupid she had been. In a remarkably similar fashion in Fall there’s a dramatic murder which then barely gets mentioned again, and where there’s never any reckoning. 

I didn’t get a strong sense of what the core philosophical differences were between Dodge and the main antagonist. Dodge was good seemingly merely by virtue of being the protagonist with the antagonist being the mirror image of that. 

Books I would read before this one:

I would read basically anything else by Stephenson before reading this. 


To Live and Die in LA (Podcast)

Hosted By: Neil Strauss

9 hours

Format: Podcast

Rating: B

Who should listen to this podcast?

If you really like blow-by-blow true crime stuff, this is a pretty good podcast.

If you want to see what goes on in a journalistic investigation this is a pretty good example of that.

Representative passage:

CHRIS SPOTZ: I’m not recording any more.

Adea: You’ve beat me

CHRIS SPOTZ: Get out of my truck.

Adea: You have beat me up.

CHRIS SPOTZ: Get out of my truck.

Adea: Beaten me up, you toke my Rolex-

CHRIS SPOTZ: I have the video.

Adea: You took my Rolex. You took my Rolex. You beat me up. Everything hurts.

CHRIS SPOTZ: Get outta my truck.

Adea: I’m not getting out ‘til I get my Rolex.

This very disturbing recording is of 25 year-old Adea Shabani, an aspiring actress who moved from Macedonia to Hollywood to pursue her dreams of becoming, as she put it, “A different kind of star.” But just three weeks before I’m recording this, Adea Shabani went missing. Vanished without a trace from outside her apartment on Hollywood Boulevard, right alongside the legendary Walk of Fame.

Thoughts

I wasn’t sure about including a podcast series in this list with everything else, but these days I think there are a lot of great podcast series out there which, when all is said and done, might as well be audiobooks. This was one of those series, and it was definitely well done. Certainly it had most of the things you’ve probably come to expect out of this format. The story was engaging and mysterious, the narrator was compelling, and the characters were all fascinating. 

In particular, while I don’t think this was their primary goal in telling the story, the process of actually getting to the truth, and the time and effort required was fascinating. Particularly since in the end the case didn’t end up being particularly complicated. Which seems like a better commentary on the present day than anything Stephenson may have written.

With that said, you may wonder why I gave it a B. Well…

Criticisms

They teased a lot of things in the beginning, which ended up not going anywhere, and which they exaggerated to boot in an obvious effort to make it sound like there were more twists than there actually ended up being.

By the time the podcast was over, the solution they arrive at feels pretty straightforward, and not particularly mysterious. All of which leads to this series being not quite as good as either of the first two seasons of Serial. 

If you were going to take only one thing from the podcast:

Even if you’re absolutely tenacious, with lots of time and resources, and even if the actual events are uncomplicated, it’s still really difficult to get at the truth.


Left For Dead: 30 Years On – The Race is Finally Over

By: Nick Ward and Sinead O’Brien

296 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: A-

Who should read this book?

If you like man against nature stories of extreme survival than this is a great one. 

If you’ve always been fascinated by the ocean and sailing this is also a great book, but it might put off of ever going near either.

Representative passage:

The swell I had felt below in the cabin was escalating. Ceaseless seas like corrugated iron were stacked up behind us row upon row as if awaiting their turn. I picked one out. Choosing the most deformed monster from this cliff face of madness, I stared at it mad, enraged. I kept staring. I focused on this one huge moving mass, waiting for it. Grimalkin lifted sharply. The horizon was nearly vertical, but this time I made no effort to save myself. All instinct for survival had abandoned me. I stood in the cockpit with Gerry at my feet taunting the wave to get me. As the horizon disappeared I implored this malevolent beast to knock me out cold, kill me. “Come on you bastard! Come on!”

Thoughts

That’s always something magnificent about a great survival story, and when you combine that with sailing (which I’ve always had a soft spot for as well) you’re going to get a great book. This particular story took place during the 1979 Fastnet race. Fastnet is one of the classic offshore yacht races, but this particular edition of the race ended in disaster. From Wikipedia:

A worse-than-expected storm on the third day of the race wreaked havoc on over 303 yachts that started the biennial race, resulting in 19 fatalities (15 yachtsmen and 4 spectators). Emergency services, naval forces, and civilian vessels from around the west side of the English Channel were summoned to aid what became the largest ever rescue operation in peace-time. This involved some 4,000 people including the entire Irish Naval Service‘s fleet, lifeboats, commercial boats, and helicopters.

Nick Ward was caught in the middle of it, and was the last person rescued. This book is his story, and it’s amazing.

Criticisms

I have only one criticism. A large part of the book is the question of why he was left on the boat by the other members of the crew. And while you get an answer it’s not as satisfactory as one would hope. Part of the book is the story of Ward, himself, finally coming to terms with the uncertainty that’s left, but I’m not there yet. (It took him many many years, I’ve only had a week or two.)

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

If you’re going through hell, keep going.


Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat into Victory

By: Michael Korda

544 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: A-

Who should read this book?

If you loved Nolan’s Dunkirk (or if you wanted to love it, but it was way too loud) and were looking for further information this would be a great book.

If you like history in general, then this is pretty good as history books go.

Representative passage:

In fact the most warlike decision that Chamberlain made—and the one that would have the most drastic effect on the war—was to invite Winston Churchill to join the War Cabinet, and also to serve once again, as he had from 1911 to 1915, as the first lord of the Admiralty (the civilian head of the Royal Navy, roughly equivalent to the American secretary of the navy). Chamberlain’s War Cabinet consisted of nine men, including the prime minister—probably too many, Lloyd George’s War Cabinet in World War One had only consisted of five—and placing Churchill in it was tantamount to putting a hawk in a cage full of doves.

Thoughts

I’ve read a fair amount of history, and getting it to flow well is always a problem. If you do find something that flows well, you often run into a different problem, the book isn’t comprehensive enough. Real history doesn’t come in neatly packaged narratives, there are lots of people doing lots of things all at the same time. Korda manages to do a pretty good job balancing both of these things, and ends up creating a very accessible book that nevertheless does a great job of capturing events at every level, from German strategy all the way down to how Dunkirk played out for an average family in London. Korda is assisted in this latter effort by having been a part of one of those families, even if he was only 7 at the time. 

Beyond that I definitely learned some new things about Dunkirk, particularly why the Germans were so ineffective at finishing things off there when they were so effective everywhere else. Probably the most surprising revelation was how well-regarded the French Military was, since these days it’s the exact opposite. But at the time the British thought that the French would launch some brilliant counter attack at any moment, and the Germans were sure that they would manage to hold the line at some point just as they had in World War I. This not only made the French the primary focus, but on top of that Hitler apparently still thought they might be able to strike a deal with Britain, which not only made the situation at Dunkirk less pressing, but may have inclined the Germans in the direction of avoiding a slaughter.

It’s unclear what would have needed to change for the British to have made a deal with Hitler. But clearly it would have been easier if Lord Halifax had been Prime Minister, and it does seem like that was avoided by the narrowest of margins. Something I had heard about but not in any detail. Korda did a great job of detailing not only this event but much of what was happening in British politics during the time of the invasion, and this may have been my favorite aspect of the book.

Criticisms

Korda mentions that during the invasion the mistresses of the French politicians exercised undue influence on them, and that if the British had been aware of how much influence they exercised that things might have turned out differently. I had never heard this and was eager to hear more, but he didn’t go into it nearly as much as detail as I would have liked on that aspect, which was unfortunate, since I would have loved to hear more. There were several examples like this, and it’s something of a minor complaint, obviously you can’t cover everything, but he shouldn’t have teased me like that.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

The mistakes made in war are at least as interesting and perhaps more interesting than the things that went according to plan.


How Will You Measure Your Life?

By: Clayton M. Christensen, James Allworth, Karen Dillon

240 pages

Format: Kindle

Rating: B+

Who should read this book?

If you like other stuff by Clay Christensen, you’ll probably like this.

If you voraciously devour anything self-help related, this one should be on your list.

Representative passage:

To understand how all three work together, let’s continue the example of a child developing an iPad app. If your child has a computer on which to program, and knowledge of how to program an iPad app, he has resources. The way in which he pulls these resources together to create something novel, something that he hasn’t been taught explicitly how to do, to learn as he goes along—these are his processes. And the desire he has to spend his precious free time creating the app, the problem he cares about enough to create the app to solve, the idea of creating something unique, or the fact that he cares that his friends will be impressed—those are the priorities leading him to do it. Resources are what he uses to do it, processes are how he does it, and priorities are why he does it.

I worry a lot that many, many parents are doing to their children what Dell did to it’s personal-computing business—removing the circumstances in which they can develop processes.

Criticisms

Every self-help book has to have something of a special sauce. Something that makes that self-help book different than the thousands of self-help books which have come before, and I’m not sure this book has enough of that. First, I don’t think it has much to say what wasn’t said already and probably better in Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. So, if you haven’t already, I would read that book first. Second insofar as it does have a special sauce it’s kind of vague. Christensen and his co-authors take some lessons from how businesses succeed (or fail) and apply them to individuals and families. But beyond that there’s not much of a unifying theme, and maybe that’s fine. There is a lot of good stuff in there, but much of it wasn’t particularly actionable, and what things were actionable I’d already heard somewhere else. Which is to say after reading most self-help books I come away with at least one to-do item, something to look at more closely or a tactic I want to try out, but that was not the case with this book.

Thoughts

All those criticisms aside, for how short it was it packed a lot in, and on top of that these books are still clearly necessary. Despite the thousands of self-help books which have been published people still do a lot of dumb things, even if they should be very familiar with the principles of success. By way of illustration Christensen frames the book by talking about his own Harvard Business School (HBS) graduating class. One would think that if you have managed to do all the things necessary to get into HBS, that you’d have mastered most of the hard stuff. And certainly that you would have read lots of advice on how to succeed. Despite this Christensen discovers that many of these individuals, who seemed to have lives “destined to be fantastic on every level” show up at each successive reunion more and more unhappy. And this is if they show up at all, in the most extreme example, one of his classmates was Jeffrey Skilling who went to jail for his role in the Enron scandal

It is for people like Christensen’s fellow HBS graduates where this book probably works best. People who are doing great in business, but at the expense of marriages, families and other relationships. And, to be fair, that’s probably a pretty big group.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

It’s important to find meaning both at work and at home, and if you lose it in either that’s when the trouble starts.


Bloodchild and Other Stories

By: Octavia E. Butler

224 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: A

Who should read this book?

If you’re like me and you haven’t read anything by Octavia Butler then this seems like a decent place to start.

If you’re a fan of science fiction short stories as a form of art distinct from novels, these are some great examples.

Representative passage:

I believed I was ugly and stupid, clumsy, and socially hopeless. I also thought that everyone would notice these faults if I drew attention to myself. I wanted to disappear. Instead, I grew to be six feet tall. Boys in particular seemed to assume that I had done this growing deliberately and that I should be ridiculed for it as often as possible. 

I hid out in a big pink notebook—one that would hold a whole ream of paper. I made myself a universe in it. There I could be a magic horse, a Martian, a telepath.… There I could be anywhere but here, any time but now, with any people but these.

Thoughts 

This book was recommended to me by one of my regular readers. I had been meaning to read some Butler for quite some time so this was a good excuse to jump in. As I said, it seems like a decent place to start, though Butler herself admits that her strengths lie more in novel writing than the short story. And I guess that means I should read some of her novels. If anyone has a recommendation on where to start let me know.

Considering things more generally, I liked the fact that this collection included a couple of essays as well. As you can probably tell I’m a fan of non-fiction essays, and I thought the ones in Bloodchild added to the experience. Speaking of non-fiction bits, Butler also did a brief afterword following each story which I appreciated. 

Criticisms

I don’t have many criticisms, this is a solid collection of short stories, even if none of them rise to the level of being brilliant. I do, however, want to single out Butler’s final story, “The Book of Martha”. In this story a non-omniscient god (he/she got rid of that power because it made things too boring) asks Martha to make one change to the world that would help humans be less destructive. As a philosophical thought experiment it’s great, but neither Martha nor, seemingly, Butler treat it with the seriousness it deserves. Considered more broadly I don’t think this problem is limited to Butler, which is why this is only a minor quibble. Playing god is difficult.

Books I would read before this one:

I suppose if you have never read any science fiction short stories, then I’m not sure this is the place to start. There’s plenty of classic anthologies out there, and depending on the person, I might recommend starting with one of those to get a feel for the genre before reading this book.


As I just mentioned, one of the books I read was recommended by one of my readers. It’s actually pretty easy to get me to read a book, but if you really want to guarantee I’ll take you seriously, consider donating. I know it’s mercenary, but that’s kind of how the world works.


How Do We Adapt to Things?

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

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When I started my last post I had intended to examine the various ways in which humans adapt to their environment. Four thousand words later, and I’d spent all of them on a defense of cultural evolution/tradition, which is of course just one of the ways we adapt to things, and probably (based on the comments) more interesting when considered in connection with other methods of adaptation than when considered in isolation. Though I still think my last post was important because there’s not nearly enough attention paid to cultural evolution as compared to other methods of adaptation, so establishing some kind of grounding there before proceeding will probably turn out to have been useful. But in any event, I didn’t even get to a discussion of other ways in which humans can adapt to their conditions, so I’m going to take another shot at it and see if I can do better this time. That resolution in place I’m going to immediately go in the opposite direction and spend just a minute or two clarifying some things left over from the last post.

I ended up posting a link to the last post in one of the SSC open comment threads. In addition to the link I laid out my four alternative criteria for judging a tradition. In response to this someone pointed out that in addition to being applied to same sex marriage that these criteria could also be applied to slavery: 

  1. The duration of the tradition. –> Slavery was around for millenia
  2. The strength of enforcement for the tradition. –> Escaped slaves were punished by death.
  3. The frequency of the tradition among the various cultures. –> Slavery was very common
  4. The domain of the tradition. Does it relate to survival or reproduction? –> “The Confederacy decided slavery was so vital to their survival, they went to war for it. See again the Spartacus rebellion.”

To begin with, I found his response to the fourth point not very on point, and probably even a little flippant, but that still leaves the other three. Obviously it’s hard to talk about slavery in any fashion other than righteous flaming denunciation without it getting messy, but I guess I’m going to try it anyway. First, we need to remember that cultural evolution doesn’t care about morality, it cares about survival. Essentially what he’s arguing is that nothing immoral could possibly also be important for survival, which doesn’t follow at all. Second, this is precisely why the fourth point is important, I don’t think slavery does have any relationship to survival or reproduction. Finally, if we are going to add morality to the criteria, as this person seems to be doing, slavery has always provoked intense moral debates, while such debates over SSM are very recent.

In fact everything about SSM is very recent, which leads to the other observation I wanted to make before we move on. After finishing the last post, and discussing it a bit with some people, I realized I left out one of my main motivations. Given that it makes me look better (I think) it seemed wise to include it. I imagine that a lot of people would take that last post as evidence that SSM keeps me up at night, particularly if they also know that I’m religious. They might even assume, despite my many statements to the contrary, that I’m an extreme homophobe. But honestly, my interest is largely intellectual. I know I shouldn’t put too much weight on any one piece of data, but I keep coming back to the content disparity present in the Timeline of Same Sex Marriage article on Wikipedia. How is it that evidence before 1970 could be so slim? Not only does it represent a mere 4% of the article, but it’s clear that they were scraping the bottom of the barrel to get even that. If you haven’t bothered to check out the article here are some examples of evidence for SSM  before 1970.

  • They mention a single marriage in Spain from 1061.
  • There’s a paragraph on it being referred to in a derisory fashion to describe political opponents during the Roman Empire.
  • It appears to have been legal in ancient Assyria.
  • The emperor’s Nero and Elagabalus married men.
  • It was part of the culture of an oasis in Egypt of about 30,000 people (that is its modern population, I assume anciently it was even less).

Reviewing this list you might assume that I cherry picked the least impressive examples, but actually the list I just gave is more or less comprehensive. These are essentially all of the  examples they could come up with. How is it that something which was so incredibly rare in the past has become such a huge deal in only the last few decades? One of my commenters suggested that perhaps it had just not occurred to anyone before 1970. I suppose that’s possible but if anything that just makes things more interesting. We have lots of examples of historical taboos, I can’t think of another example of something never even being considered before the present, certainly not outside of new technology, which SSM is not.

If my interest in SSM is mostly intellectual, you might wonder if I can provide any more visceral examples, reports of traditions under threat where my reaction involves more anger. I can. In particular I remember being very annoyed by the story making the rounds last month about training being given by the New York City Department of Education where things like “individualism,” “objectivity” and “worship of the written word,” were labeled as “White Supremacy Culture”. This is only one data point, but it was a piece of data that fed into a feeling I’ve had for awhile. While I mostly talk about the erosion of moral traditions because that erosion is so obvious, it feels like there’s something deeper going on. I’ve had the sense for awhile that the attack on traditions might not stop there. And when I hear someone label objectivity as “White Supremacy” it seems to confirm those deeper fears. 

With the last post put to bed let’s finally turn to a discussion of the various ways humans can adapt to their environment.

The first and most obvious method of adaptation is evolution through natural selection, which is a large topic unto itself, so for our purposes I just want to point out a few key features. To begin with, it operates through genetic mutations, which occur randomly. Most of the time these mutations are benign, some of the time they’re maladaptive and a tiny minority of the time they’re actually beneficial. (Commentators may notice that I borrowed some of their wording.) Despite the fact that these mutations are beneficial only a tiny minority of the time, the vast majority of what we see when we look are beneficial mutations, because that’s what’s being selected for, and is in fact the definition of beneficial since in this context that just means it makes the organism more likely to reproduce in such a fashion that the gene is transmitted to the next generation. To boil everything down, at this level adaptation:

  1. Is initiated randomly.
  2. Is tested in the crucible of genetic reproduction and survival.
  3. Takes a very, very long time.

The next method of adaptation, is the one I discussed at such length in the last post, that is cultural evolution. I obviously spent quite a bit of time on it in the last post, so you would expect there wouldn’t be much left to say on the subject. But I think it’s important to draw some sharp lines about what it is and what it isn’t. To begin with, while evolution through natural selection operates on the level of genes. Cultural evolution operates at the level of practices that can be transmitted by language. Which I shorthanded as traditions, and it makes having a common language pretty important (though being able to translate might get you most of the way.) The first thing that’s interesting about this, is that it makes culture harder to transmit in some respects, but easier in others.

Genes represent a common language for everything, meaning we get them from all over the place, not merely from Neanderthals, but from viruses as well. The same can not be said for traditions. We didn’t get any traditions from viruses, and it seems pretty unlikely we got any from the Neaderthals either. This is where traditions and culture are harder to transmit, but if you speak the same language, they suddenly become much easier to transmit than genes. Which makes it faster as well. So then how is it tested? This is the part of cultural evolution where all the debate is happening, and where I spent a lot of time in the previous post. But certainly survival has to be in there, and not merely survival of individuals, but survival of the whole culture. In fact I would argue that humans being what they are, that if your culture, taken in its totality, can’t survive conflict with other cultures (i.e. war). Then sooner or later your culture isn’t going to be around and there will be no traditions left to transmit.

Beyond survival, if traditions are the unit of evolution they have to be easily transmissible as well. They also have to be sticky, otherwise they wouldn’t be around long enough to have any effect. That makes traditions sound like memes, but I think there is one big difference. I think for a tradition to be considered part of cultural evolution it has to be attached to its host’s reproduction and survival. I think a meme just has to be able to ensure its own survival.  This takes us to the final and weirdest way for humans to adapt. But before we go there let’s summarize the attributes of cultural evolution:

  1. Is initiated with some thought. “Hey, what if we tried this?”
  2. Is tested in the crucible of cultural and individual reproduction and survival
  3. Is much quicker than genetic evolution, but still kind of slow.

At last we reach the final method of adaptation, memetic evolution, and yet again I’m indebted to Scott Alexander of SSC for so clearly identifying it and I would encourage you to read the original post he did on it. But I also think there’s more to the story than what he points out, in particular I think he undersells the role of survival as the key differentiator between cultural and memetic evolution. But before we jump ahead I should explain the differences between the two as Alexander sees them. For him it mostly revolves around the idea of “convincingness”. That memetic evolution is about doing what sounds good (with competition happening around what that is at any given moment) while cultural evolution is about doing what worked in the past. 

As you can see from the previous list, cultural evolution probably starts in very much the same way. Despite this there are at least two significant differences in how this process works for each. To begin with, in cultural evolution, the space of things eligible to be considered “good ideas” is much smaller, both because of greater resistance to change and because, due to technology, the list of things which could possibly be changed is also vastly smaller. The other difference is that at some point or another the “good idea” is going to be tested to see whether it actually improves the culture’s fitness or makes it worse. Neither of these things is true when it comes to memetic evolution. In the first case it’s a difference of degree, resistance to change still exists, but it’s decreased while the list of potential good ideas just keeps growing. But in the second case it’s a difference of kind, and I would contend that with memetic evolution we have reached a point where “good ideas” are completely disconnected from fitness. The test never happens. Accordingly the attributes of memetic evolution are:

  1. Entirely idea based, with a large potential space for generating those ideas.
  2. Ideas don’t need to provide any survival value for the humans which hold them. It’s all about idea propagation, and “mindshare”.
  3. Much quicker than cultural evolution, and it can be made quicker still by technology.

While we have mostly covered the first point, the remaining two require further discussion. While I think point two is self evident, it immediately leads to a very important follow-up question, how can we get away with no longer worrying about survival? There are three possibilities:

  1. We have progressed to the point where survival is no longer in doubt, therefore we can safely ignore it. The old rules really don’t apply. Perhaps because everything promised by the advocates of posthumanism is coming to pass.
  2. Survival and reproduction and evolutionary fitness still lurk in the background, but we have managed to make significant progress in lessening their importance, allowing us to profitably focus on other things, perhaps in something akin to Maslow’s hierarchy.
  3. We can’t get away with it. Survival and reproduction are just as important as ever, but they’ve been completely overshadowed by the variety and speed of memetic evolution. That eventually cultural evolution will still be important.

You can probably guess which possibility I favor, but I’m not the only one to notice that we have developed lots of behaviors that have little to do with ongoing survival. Robin Hanson calls it Dreamtime, and describes it thusly, “our lives are far more dominated by consequential delusions: wildly false beliefs and non-adaptive values that matter.” But I’m jumping ahead, each of these possibilities has some interesting and possibly disturbing implications. 

The first possibility represents the most extreme shift. Because, as I said, the old rules don’t apply. Under the old rules it was all about us, the humans, and whether we continued to exist or not. With possibility number one it’s all about ideas, and humans are just a place for ideas to reside, and not even a particularly good place now that we have computers, which takes us to my posthuman reference. If ideas are all that matter what’s to say we even have a role in the world of the future. Certainly there are lots of posthumanists who worry that we don’t.

Under the second possibility, one imagines that, civilizationally, we’re perched near the top of Maslow’s pyramid in the areas of love, esteem and self-actualization, and that this is a good thing. But in this model the bottom level with the physical needs of food and water is still down there. Is there ever a point where we forget how to supply those needs? Certainly on an individual level, almost no one in the US knows how to grow or kill enough food to feed themselves for an extended period. We still possess this knowledge at a civilizational level, fortunately, but it’s unclear how robust this knowledge is. I say this, primarily, because it hasn’t been put to the test recently, There are lots of ways for something like this to be tested, but if nothing else in the past there were frequent wars which acted to test the mettle of a civilization. We haven’t had one of those recently, and to be clear, that’s a good thing, but it also seems like the kind of thing where the longer you go without one, the worse it is when it finally happens. And I’m by no means convinced that there will never be another great power war.

Turning to the third possibility, the first thing we need to do is decide what it means for survival to be “just as important as ever”. From one perspective, of course it’s as important as ever, as I frequently point out, if you can’t survive (and reproduce) you can’t do anything else either. So on reflection, it’s more accurate to say that the third possibility asserts that survival is just as difficult as ever. Stating it this way I assume a lot of people are going to immediately dismiss it as obviously incorrect, since that’s not what the numbers show at all. Rather they show a huge increase in life expectancy and vast decreases to most of the causes of death people had to worry about historically, like infant mortality or infectious diseases. This is a pretty good argument, but let me offer at least one counterargument (there are many).

Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes the point that technology and progress have not created any decrease in fragility, that rather, if anything, they have increased it, which would mean that, currently, survival is not merely as difficult, it’s more difficult. But what about the numbers? Here Taleb argues that though technology doesn’t decrease fragility it does allow you to dampen volatility, particularly in the short term. I say in the short term because what we’re really doing is postponing volatility and making things that much worse when whatever tools you’ve been using eventually reach the limits of their effectiveness

You can see how this all might play out using the example of nuclear war. It is widely agreed that a large part of the reason for the Long Peace is the horror of nuclear weapons. This is the low volatility. However if war ever does come the eventual volatility will be far greater than any previous war. Additionally, while no previous war ever threatened the survival of humanity, a nuclear war very well might, leading to exactly the situation I described. Survival isn’t just as difficult, it’s actually much more difficult.

The last issue we have to deal with is the speed of memetic evolution. Recall the title question, “How do we adapt to things?’ Or to take it from another angle, what are we adapting to? In the past all adaptation was in service of survival and reproduction, and the fact that cultural evolution was faster than genetic evolution allowed humans to adapt more quickly to a variety of conditions. Certainly I’m not aware of any other animals which have adapted to live nearly anywhere. But if we’re not adapting to survive in changing conditions because our survival is no longer in question than what are we adapting to? And how does doing it faster help? If anything it appears that things are reversed. That the changes brought about by memetic evolution aren’t helping us to adapt they’re what we have to adapt to. In which case, the fact that it just keeps going faster isn’t a feature, it’s a bug…

If we have passed into the era of memetic evolution. And if it has the qualities I describe. Both of which seem very likely. Then there doesn’t seem to be much of a silver lining. It would appear that the best case scenario would be to hope that we have progressed into a new and better world where ideas are the only thing that matters, and then to further hope that we can manage to find a place in that world. The other possibilities all seem to boil down to a rapidly changing world where survival is still important but the conditions we’re trying to adapt our survival to are changing with ever greater rapidity.


These ending blurbs are actually examples of memetic evolution. No, really. I never said they were good examples, in fact they’re more akin to the random mutations of genetic evolution. But maybe this is the random mutation that will work, and you’ll be convinced to donate.


Traditions: Separating the Important from the Inconsequential

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For anyone who has been paying attention, it should be obvious that I get a lot of my material from Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex. Optimistically, I take his ideas and expand upon them in an interesting fashion. Realistically, the relationship is more that of parasite and host. But regardless, I bring it up because I am once again going to that well. This time, to talk about a recent series of posts he did on cultural evolution.

What’s cultural evolution you ask? Well in brief it’s evolution that works by changing culture, rather than evolution which works by changing genes, but nevertheless evolution working in service of increased survival and reproduction. That this variety of evolution should exist and be embodied by certain “traditions” almost goes without saying.

(I put traditions in scare quotes because the elements of cultural evolution can take many forms, out of these some would definitely be called traditions, but others are more properly classified as taboos, habits, beliefs and so on. I’ll be using tradition throughout just to keep things simple.)

Some traditions so obviously serve to enhance the survival and reproduction of the people within that culture that their identification is trivial. A blatantly obvious example would be the tradition of wearing heavy clothing during the winter, a tradition which is present in all northern cultures. That such traditions exist is obvious, but for many if not most people it’s equally obvious that not all traditions work to increase survival, that some traditions are useless, probably silly and potentially harmful. That getting rid of these traditions would carry no long term consequences. Given the behavioral restrictions imposed by some traditions, there has been a lot of argument over which traditions should go into which bucket. Which traditions are important and which are inconsequential.

Initially you may be under the impression that it should be fairly obvious which traditions enhance survival and which are meaningless, but one of the key insights contained in Alexander’s posts, an insight based largely on his reading of The Secret of Our Success by Joseph Henrich, is that sometimes it’s not obvious at all. As an example, let me quote Alexander’s quote of Henrich (I told you I was a parasite) as he talks about cassava, or manioc as it’s sometimes known:

In the Americas, where manioc was first domesticated, societies who have relied on bitter varieties for thousands of years show no evidence of chronic cyanide poisoning. In the Colombian Amazon, for example, indigenous Tukanoans use a multistep, multiday processing technique that involves scraping, grating, and finally washing the roots in order to separate the fiber, starch, and liquid. Once separated, the liquid is boiled into a beverage, but the fiber and starch must then sit for two more days, when they can then be baked and eaten. Figure 7.1 shows the percentage of cyanogenic content in the liquid, fiber, and starch remaining through each major step in this processing.

Such processing techniques are crucial for living in many parts of Amazonia, where other crops are difficult to cultivate and often unproductive. However, despite their utility, one person would have a difficult time figuring out the detoxification technique. Consider the situation from the point of view of the children and adolescents who are learning the techniques. They would have rarely, if ever, seen anyone get cyanide poisoning, because the techniques work. And even if the processing was ineffective, such that cases of goiter (swollen necks) or neurological problems were common, it would still be hard to recognize the link between these chronic health issues and eating manioc. Most people would have eaten manioc for years with no apparent effects. Low cyanogenic varieties are typically boiled, but boiling alone is insufficient to prevent the chronic conditions for bitter varieties. Boiling does, however, remove or reduce the bitter taste and prevent the acute symptoms (e.g., diarrhea, stomach troubles, and vomiting).

So, if one did the common-sense thing and just boiled the high-cyanogenic manioc, everything would seem fine. Since the multistep task of processing manioc is long, arduous, and boring, sticking with it is certainly non-intuitive. Tukanoan women spend about a quarter of their day detoxifying manioc, so this is a costly technique in the short term. Now consider what might result if a self-reliant Tukanoan mother decided to drop any seemingly unnecessary steps from the processing of her bitter manioc. She might critically examine the procedure handed down to her from earlier generations and conclude that the goal of the procedure is to remove the bitter taste. She might then experiment with alternative procedures by dropping some of the more labor-intensive or time-consuming steps. She’d find that with a shorter and much less labor-intensive process, she could remove the bitter taste. Adopting this easier protocol, she would have more time for other activities, like caring for her children. Of course, years or decades later her family would begin to develop the symptoms of chronic cyanide poisoning.

Thus, the unwillingness of this mother to take on faith the practices handed down to her from earlier generations would result in sickness and early death for members of her family. Individual learning does not pay here, and intuitions are misleading. The problem is that the steps in this procedure are causally opaque—an individual cannot readily infer their functions, interrelationships, or importance. The causal opacity of many cultural adaptations had a big impact on our psychology.

Wait. Maybe I’m wrong about manioc processing. Perhaps it’s actually rather easy to individually figure out the detoxification steps for manioc? Fortunately, history has provided a test case. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Portuguese transported manioc from South America to West Africa for the first time. They did not, however, transport the age-old indigenous processing protocols or the underlying commitment to using those techniques. Because it is easy to plant and provides high yields in infertile or drought-prone areas, manioc spread rapidly across Africa and became a staple food for many populations. The processing techniques, however, were not readily or consistently regenerated. Even after hundreds of years, chronic cyanide poisoning remains a serious health problem in Africa. Detailed studies of local preparation techniques show that high levels of cyanide often remain and that many individuals carry low levels of cyanide in their blood or urine, which haven’t yet manifested in symptoms. In some places, there’s no processing at all, or sometimes the processing actually increases the cyanogenic content. On the positive side, some African groups have in fact culturally evolved effective processing techniques, but these techniques are spreading only slowly.

I understand that’s a long selection, but there’s a lot going on when you’re talking about cultural evolution and I wanted to make sure we got all of the various aspects out on the table. Also while I’m only going to include the example of cassava/manioc, there are numerous other examples of very similar things happening.

To begin with we can immediately see that it’s not easy to tell which traditions are important and which are inconsequential. Accordingly, right off the bat, we should exercise significant humility when we decide whether to put a given tradition into the “survival” or the “silly” bucket. In particular, one of the things which should be obvious is that cause and effect can be separated by a very large gap. Now that we have modern techniques for testing the cyanogenic content of something we can identify how much it’s reduced at each step in the process, but that wouldn’t have been clear to the Tukanoans. Rather they could only go by eventual health effects which could take years to manifest and would be unfamiliar when they eventually did end up appearing. As Henrich points out, you would first have to make the connection between someone’s health issues and eating manioc, and then further make the connection to whatever step you got rid of.

It’s also interesting to note that one tradition can seem to hold most or all of the utility. In the example of the cassava, just boiling it gets rid of all the immediately noticeable issues, it “removes or reduces the bitter taste and prevents the acute symptoms (e.g., diarrhea, stomach troubles, and vomiting).” We can imagine something similar happening with other traditions. Like cassava preparation lots of traditions come as packages, for example there are a whole host of prohibitions and injunctions related to sex contained in most religions. And you can imagine someone saying, oh what they’re really worried about is STIs and unplanned pregnancies, now that we’ve invented latex condoms, we don’t have to worry about any of the injunctions against extramarital sex. We’ve identified the bit that affected survival and now the rest of it is just silly. But all of this might be the same as someone deciding that boiling was the only tradition necessary to make cassava safe, and discarding all other steps as superfluous. When, in reality, the benefits of the other steps are just more subtle.

Finally, there’s Henrich’s point that traditions, and the benefits they provide, are often non-intuitive. Alexander even goes so far as to speculate, in his commentary, that trying to use reason to determine which traditions are important could actually take you farther away from the correct answer, at least in the near term. And this is one of the chief difficulties we encounter when grappling with that initial question. In our determination of whether something confers an advantage to survival and reproduction how long of a time horizon do we need to consider? Henrich points out with cassava that it would take several years before problems were even noticeable. How much longer after that would it take before people were able to make the connection between the problems and the tradition they’d eliminated. Note, that even hundreds of years after its introduction into Africa, cyanide poisoning is still a serious health problem. The fact that the African’s never had certain traditions of preparation to begin with, makes things harder, but you’re still looking at an awfully long time during which they haven’t made a connection between cause and effect.

It seems entirely possible that even if you were being very rational, and very careful about collecting data, that it might, nevertheless, take multiple generations, all building on one another, before you could make the connection between the harm being prevented by a tradition and the tradition itself. Certainly it takes numerous generations to come up with the traditions in the first place.

To sum it all up, when attempting to determine which traditions are important, you’re going to encounter numerous difficulties. Chief among this is just the enormous amount of time it’s going to take before you can say anything for certain. And during this time, when you are trying to make a determination, much of the evidence is going to point in the wrong direction. In particular there will be a bias towards dismissing traditions as unimportant. Modern technology might help (for example knowing cyanide is bad and being able to detect it), but it might also lead to giving undue weight to sources of harm or benefit which are easy to detect.

As I mentioned at the beginning there’s been a lot of arguing over this question. The question of which traditions are important and which are inconsequential. To be fair this argument has been going on for a long time, at least the last several hundred years and probably even longer, but I would argue that it’s accelerated considerably over the last few decades. In particular three things seemed to have changed recently:

First, support for traditional religion has gone into a nosedive. There are, of course, various statistics showing the percent of believers (in the US) going from 83 to 77 and the number of unbelievers rising by a nearly identical amount, and this may not seem like that big of a deal. Though given that this decline only took 7 years, that’s still fairly precipitous. But more importantly with relationship to this topic, even if 77% of people are still religious, the religions they belong to have jettisoned many of their traditional beliefs.

Second, technology has made it easier to work around traditions. For one, survival is no longer a concern for most people, meaning that traditions which increased survival, particularly in the near term, are no longer necessary. As another example, in the past, traditional gender roles were hard to subvert, but now we can go so far as to provide gender reassignment surgery for those that are unhappy. The list could go on and on, and while I’m sure that in some cases the fact that technology can subvert tradition means that it should. I don’t think that’s clear in all cases.

And finally, perhaps following from the first two points, or perhaps causing them, there’s intense suspicion of all traditions, particularly those whose utility is not immediately obviously. This seems particularly true of any traditions which impinge on individual autonomy. But I also have a sense of it being disproportionately applied to anything that might be considered a European tradition.

Pulling all of this together we are confronted with a very important question. The question of which traditions can be dispensed with. Recently, and increasingly, the answer has been “All of them!” And perhaps people are correct about this. Maybe we have ended up with a bunch of silly traditions which need to be gotten rid of, but if we can take anything from the lesson of cassava, it’s going to take a long time to be sure of that, and reason isn’t necessarily going to help.

If, in fact, the normal methods of collecting and evaluating evidence in a scientific manner take too long to operate effectively with respect to traditions, you might be wondering what other tools we have for deciding this question? I would submit four for your consideration:

  1. The duration of the tradition. How long has it been around?
  2. The strength of enforcement for the tradition. How severe are the penalties for going against it?
  3. The frequency of the tradition among the various cultures. How widespread is it? Is it present in many different cultures?
  4. The domain of the tradition. Is the tradition related to something which could impact survival or reproduction?

To the above I would add one other consideration which doesn’t necessarily speak to the intrinsic value of any given tradition, but might suggest to us another method for choosing whether to keep or discard it. This is the issue of tradeoffs. How costly is it to keep the tradition? How much time are we potentially wasting? What are the downsides of continuing as is? Reversing things, if we abandon the tradition what are the potential consequences? Is there any possibility of something catastrophic happening? Even if the actual probability is relatively low?

You might recognize this as a very Talebian way of thinking, and indeed he’s a pretty strong defender of traditions. He would probably go even farther at this point and declare that traditions must be either robust or antifragile, otherwise they’re fragile and would have “broken” long ago, but I spent a previous post going down that road, and at the moment I want to focus on other aspects of the argument.

So enough of generalities, starchy tubers and Taleb! It’s time to take the tools we’ve assembled and apply them to a current debate. In order to really test the limits of things we should take something that has recently been declared to be not just inconsequential and irrelevant but downright harmful and malicious. With these criteria in mind I think the taboo against Same Sex Marriage (SSM) is the perfect candidate.

Before we begin I want to clarify a few things. First it is obvious that historically gay individuals have been treated horribly. And I am by no means advocating that we should return to that. Honestly, I really hope that traditions and taboos around homosexuality and SSM can be discarded and that nothing bad will happen, but I can’t shake the feeling that these traditions and taboos were there for a reason. Also given that two-thirds of Americans support SSM not only is this a great tradition to use as an example for all of the above, it’s also very unlikely that anything I or anyone else says will change things. Finally my impression is that many people offer up homosexuality and SSM as the gold standard for where reason came up with the right answer and tradition came up with the wrong answer. And speaking of which, that’s a great place to start.

One of the key arguments in the broader discussion is that past individuals did things based on irrational biases, but now that we’re more rational, and can look at things in the cold light of reason, we can eliminate those biases and do the correct thing rather than the superstitious thing. But considered rationally what is the basis for SSM?

(I should mention I’m mostly going to restrict myself to the narrower question of SSM, than homosexuality more broadly).

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the moral argument, and it’s a powerful one, but I’m not sure I understand the argument from reason. Rationally, as a society there’s lots of things we should be encouraging, and though there are some arguments over what these things are, reproduction would seem like something most people can agree on, and whatever other arguments you want to make about SSM, reproduction is not its strong point. In other words it would seem that arguments in favor of SSM are mostly moral, which is fine, but in our increasingly post-religious world you have to wonder: Where is that morality coming from? What’s it grounded on? This is obviously a huge topic, my key point is: I think the case for SSM from reason is weaker than most people think.

Moving beyond that most SSM proponents seem to argue from a lack of harm. That it’s not only immoral to withhold marriage from individuals who want it, but that it doesn’t harm anyone else to give them this right. Here’s where I think the question of time horizons brought up be Henrich is particularly salient. He offers plenty of examples of traditions where the harm prevented by the tradition will only manifest many years later. And even without those examples, I think the idea that it could take a generation or two for certain kinds of harm to manifest and that the connection between cause and effect might not be clear even when it does, is entirely reasonable. (There’s that word again.) To put it another way, it’s impossible to know how long it takes for something to manifest, or to be entirely sure that we have “waited long enough”. As a reminder, Obergefell is still a few days away from its fourth anniversary. That definitely does not seem like long enough to draw a firm, and final conclusion.

To return to my parasitism, Alexander just barely posted about one explanation for the more general category of all sexual purity taboos (including homosexuality) and that’s to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). A couple of selections:

STIs were a bigger problem in the past than most people think. Things got especially bad after the rise of syphilis: British studies find an urban syphilis rate of 8-10% from the 1700s to the early 1900s. At the time the condition was incurable, and progressed to insanity and death in about a quarter of patients.

[T]he AIDS epidemic proves that STIs transmitted primarily through homosexual contact can be real and deadly. Men who have sex with men are also forty times more likely to get syphilis and about three times more likely to get gonnorrhea (though they may be less likely to get other conditions like chlamydia).

In the previous thread, some people suggested that this could be an effect of stigma, where gays are afraid to get medical care, or where laws against gay marriage cause gays to have more partners. But Glick et al find that the biology of anal sex “would result in significant disparities in HIV rates between MSM and heterosexuals even if both populations had similar numbers of sex partners, frequency of sex, and condom use levels”.

This is probably part of the explanation for the taboo, and I would direct you to Alexander’s post if you want more detail. For my part I worry that uncovering the STI link is akin to finding out that boiling cassava “remove[s] or reduce[s] the bitter taste and prevent[s] the acute symptoms (e.g., diarrhea, stomach troubles, and vomiting)”. That in both cases it will lead someone to feel that they have uncovered everything they need to know about the reason for the taboo. That in the same way they might decide other parts of the cassava preparation tradition are unnecessary, they might also decide that if we have other ways of avoiding STIs that there’s no need to continue to worry about taboos around sexual purity either.

Thus far, regardless of the tools we’ve applied, we’re not really any closer to a definitive answer to our question: Did historical taboos against same sex marriage serve to increase survival and reproduction or were they just silly superstitions? Having examined the ways in which Henrich’s book might help, let’s turn to the standards I suggested:

1- The duration of the tradition. How long has it been around?

I’m not an expert on historical homosexuality, but it seems pretty clear that taboos against SSM have been around in one form or another for all of recorded history. Wikipedia’s Timeline of Same Sex Marriage dedicates 4% of it’s space to everything before 1970, and the other 96% to stuff that happened after 1970. So yes, it wasn’t entirely unknown, but there was definitely a taboo against it at every historical point you care to imagine.

2- The strength of enforcement for the tradition. How severe are the penalties for going against it?

Historically punishments for homosexuality have been severe. I assume that, at least on this point, I won’t get much of an argument from anyone. Though it is true that the most severe punishments seem to have been in Europe and the Middle East, severe punishment wasn’t limited to those areas either. Where the taboo existed (nearly everywhere) it was very strong. And even in times and places where the taboo against homosexuality was not particularly extreme it was still strong enough that it was extraordinarily rare for people to be in a position to confront the, yet further still taboo, against SSM.

3- The frequency of the tradition among the various cultures. How widespread is it? Is it present in many different cultures?

As I mentioned a taboo against SSM was basically present at all times throughout human history, but it’s clear that further it was present in nearly all places at all times as well. It should be noted that even today 75% of the world’s population still live in countries where it’s illegal.

At this point if I were on the other side of that argument (and I am, a little bit, but it’s also apparent that that side doesn’t need any help) then I would use the ubiquity of the taboo to argue that it’s not cultural, it’s technological. It’s not that everyone had the same culture, it’s that everyone still had the same, relatively primitive, technology. I’m not sure current technology makes as big of a difference to this sort of thing as we think, but there’s at least an interesting discussion to be had on the topic.

4- The domain of the tradition. Is the tradition related to something which could impact survival or reproduction?

I would argue that this is the point that most people overlook or at the very least minimize. If culture evolves to enhance survival, then you would expect a lot of what comes out of cultural evolution to involve things which directly impact not only survival but reproduction, since that’s what you’re selecting for. Meaning that, when you’re trying to decide whether a given tradition is important or not, asking whether it has any impact on those two things would be a good place to start. And clearly the traditions we’re talking about do. Up until the very recent past there were a lot of people who were born who otherwise wouldn’t have been, had there been no taboos. Anecdotally, I have four cousin in-laws who wouldn’t have existed if Stonewall had happened 20 years earlier.

I’ve been conflating and separating SSM from other taboos against homosexuality more or less as it suits me, and with, admittedly, less rigor than would be ideal, but it occurs to me that on at least one point the seperation is very clear. In terms of behavior, SSM doesn’t allow for behaviors that much different from general taboos against homosexuality, but it’s very different in terms of societal norms. With most taboos, there are always going to be significant violations that end up being overlooked. Where you might say an “understanding” exists. If the violation of the taboo impacts what’s considered publicly sanctioned behavior, then that’s more difficult to overlook and the taboo is both different and stronger. SSM definitely falls into this category, in that it intrinsically has to be both public and sanctioned. That the Rubicon we’re crossing (for good or ill) is not in what behaviors we overlook, but in what behaviors we sanction.

Because we are crossing a Rubicon, and there would appear to be a lot of things indicating that this crossing is not inconsequential. For reasons of charity, I hope I’m wrong about this, but also because I don’t see any chance of things reversing themselves, if I am right, and we are headed for a bad outcome. There is some chance I’m right about the role of these traditions, that they were important, but recent technology has changed them to being inconsequential. But given all of the above, I think the entire issue should be approached with more humility. That at a minimum we should back off from people who want to maintain the taboo, both practitioners of religion and bakers of cakes. Particularly if there’s nothing resembling coercion in the way they want to maintain those traditions.

In the end I keep coming back to a point I’ve made in the past. You have two options: You can assume that the vast majority of people in the vast majority of places throughout all of history down to the present day were hateful, irrational bigots, or you can assume that maybe somewhere in all of this that there was some wisdom, and we should attempt to understand what that wisdom was before we abandon it.


You know what else has broad historical precedent? Patronage. Yep, the practice of rich and powerful people supporting art they appreciated. This isn’t exactly art, and you’re probably not exactly rich and powerful, but consider donating anyway.


Review- Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis by Jared Diamond

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Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis

By: Jared Diamond

512 pages

Format: Audiobook w/ physical copy for reference

Rating: B+

Who should read this book?

If you want a new framework for thinking about current problems in the US and the World, you should read this book.

Also, this book is going to be part of the “conversation” for a while and if you want to be part of that you should read this book.

Representative passage:

I agree that these concerns cannot be lightly dismissed. On the one hand, throughout my life, in each decade there have been reasons to consider that particular decade as posing the toughest problems that we Americans have ever faced — whether it was the 1940’s with World War Two against Japan and Nazi Germany, the 1950’s with the Cold War, the 1960’s with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War that lacerated American society, and so on. But even when I tell myself that we should be suspicious because every decade has seemed at the time to be the one offering the most cause for anxiety, I still have to agree: the current decade of the 2010’s really is the one offering the most cause for anxiety.

Thoughts

The structure of Upheaval is very simple. When individuals are in crisis there are a set of a dozen or so factors that determine whether or not they will weather that crisis. Diamond takes these factors and applies them to nations in crisis. He does this first by using them as a lens through which to view past crises in Finland, Japan, Chile, Indonesia, Germany and Australia. Then he moves on to applying the factors to crises he feels are currently underway.

The first question one has on encountering this structure is, “Does that even work?” Or more formally, “Can you profitably apply something designed to treat individuals in crisis to nations in crisis?” As you might imagine the answer to that question is unclear, and many people have dismissed the book because of that. The current top review on Amazon gives the book two stars and describes the problem pretty well:

I found Upheaval to be largely an exercise in loose analogies and long narratives with few testable hypotheses. While pleasant reading it is not the epochal work the author intended.

I agree with basically everything the reviewer says, but as you’ve already seen, my rating is much higher, and it all has to do with that word “epochal”. Arguably Diamond’s best known book, Guns, Germs and Steel was epochal, and expecting the same thing out of Upheaval isn’t entirely unwarranted, but it does seem like a pretty high bar. In contrast. I prefer the word I used earlier when framing the question, “profitably”. Yes, I agree that this structure is not epochal, but is adding it to our chest of tools for discussing the health of nations a net positive? That is are we better of using it than not?

As I’ve said there are valid criticisms to be made. The evidence is almost entirely anecdotal, it appears unfalsifiable (he offered no example of a nation who failed at the crisis point because they ignored the factors), the data set is very small, etc. And despite all of these weaknesses I would say that, yes, we are better of using it than not. If there was some theory of national crisis and decline which lacked one or more of these weaknesses I would gladly switch to it, but as far as I can tell there isn’t. This is not to say there aren’t other theories of national crises and decline, but I’m unaware of any that do better on these measures, and most do a lot worse.

Of course, even if we decide that it’s worthwhile to use Diamond’s list of factors, we still might not agree that there’s any nation in crisis for us to use them on. Earlier in the Representative Passage section I quote Diamond as saying, “I still have to agree: the current decade of the 2010’s really is the one offering the most cause for anxiety.” But there are definitely people who disagree with that. (In fact I’m not sure I agree with it. At this point I’m far more anxious about the 2020’s.) Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now, which I’ve frequently mentioned in this space makes nearly the exact opposite argument, that things are better than they’ve ever been, and he makes this argument about not only the US but the whole world. Precisely two of the places Diamond identifies as definitely in crisis. Which takes us to the second argument Diamond is making, that there are numerous current and developing crises where his methodology can profitably be applied. As someone who has done a lot of this myself I’m at least as interested in seeing what Diamond identifies as crises as I am in his methodology for dealing with them. Additionally, it’s helpful to have some examples in mind before going through his list of factors. So let’s start with the various crises Diamond has identified, beginning in the US:

First, and in Diamond’s opinion, “the most ominous” current crisis is the decline of political compromise and civility. I would agree that this is definitely one of the more worrying trends, though I disagree that the 2010’s are objectively worse than the late 60’s/early 70’s. That said, I definitely don’t like the way things are headed. In other words, I basically agree with Diamond and my sense is that we’re far from alone in worrying about this. Though you might wonder what kind of counter argument exists. I checked my copy of Enlightenment Now to see what Pinker had to say, and there wasn’t much. He did talk about the divisions between right and left. And seemed to indicate that greater reliance on reason and superforecasting were the answer, but I don’t see much to indicate that there’s a broad-based trend in this direction, or that divisiveness isn’t as bad as people think. All of which is to say, I feel pretty confident that Diamond has identified an actual crisis which appears set to only get worse.

The other three US crises are not quite as compelling (which Diamond himself admits). The second potential crisis is voting, particularly the US’s very low voter turnout. Here I am less inclined to think this is a crisis, and if it is, then it’s probably related to the first crisis and shouldn’t be considered separately. The third potential crisis is socioeconomic inequality, here I’m more sympathetic, but I also admit there are several important caveats. To begin with, whatever worries this should engender, they’re going to be operating on a much longer time horizon than the issue of declining political compromise. Also this is something Pinker speaks to fairly extensively in Enlightenment Now, putting together a pretty convincing argument that inequality is not as big of a concern as most people think. I’m not sure I agree, but it at least appears to be something where there are compelling arguments on both sides. Diamond’s fourth issue is the decline of overall social capital. That the nation as a whole is becoming less cohesive, this once again appears closely related to the first issue, and doesn’t require a lot of additional commentary.

I’ll be honest, the US crises Diamond comes up with are a little underwhelming. Not only are they all fairly similar, but I think Diamond overlooks several other potential crises related to advances in technology. This is not to say that the things listed by Diamond aren’t genuinely concerning issues, just that I’m not sure they have the same heft as the past crises he profiled, for example Germany recovering from World War II or Finland staying independent from the Soviet Union when a dozen other nations were unable to. But from a discussion of US crises he turns to crises facing the world, and given that the US is still the most powerful country in the world, a crisis for the world is essentially also a crisis for the United State. He comes up with another four crises that are world wide. And again, seeing what he identifies as a crisis is at least as interesting as his explanation for how to deal with them.

The first worldwide crisis he identifies is the possibility of nuclear weapons being detonated in anger. Here we’re definitely on the same page, as you may remember I did a post on this very thing not that long ago.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, he then moves on to a discussion of climate change. Out of all the crises he mentions this seems to clearly be the most intractable, and the one where novel ways of thinking are most needed. We’ll see in a moment whether Diamond ends up providing that novelty when we arrive at his list of factors

Third on his list of worldwide crises is global resource depletion. For a counter argument to this we don’t even have to turn to someone like Pinker, things like the Simon-Ehrlich Wager provide a ready made retort to the idea that this is a crisis, let alone an acute one. Tying this into the last point, I think most people are far more worried about the CO2 created by fossil fuels than the idea that we might run out of them. Certainly all of this could be a problem, and maybe even one which can be dealt with by nations acting in concert, but there’s a lot of evidence that even if it is, it’s not our biggest problem.

Finally he brings up global inequalities in living standards. I don’t think anyone denies that inequalities exist and are extreme. The question is, does extreme inequality equal extreme harm? And if it does, how do you solve it without making the previous two problems worse? Resource consumption and carbon emissions by people in developed nations are at least an order of magnitude worse than those in less developed nations. It’s hard to see how you reduce inequality without increasing both emissions and resource usage.

You can probably see where the US is a major actor in all of these crises. Putting all of them together we have eight example crises where we can apply Diamond’s factors and see where they take us. I do not intend to offer 96 separate observations, particularly since most of the factors end up working out similarly regardless of the crisis. Also I am assuming that somewhere in that list of eight is something you are genuinely concerned about. And I would ask you to keep that in mind as we go through Diamond’s 12 “Factors related to the outcomes of national crises”:

  1. National consensus that one’s nation is in crisis
  2. Acceptance of national responsibility to do something
  3. Building a fence, to delineate the national problems needing to be solved
  4. Getting material and financial help from other nations
  5. Using other nations as models of how to solve the problems
  6. National identity
  7. Honest national self-appraisal
  8. Historical experience of previous national crises
  9. Dealing with national failure
  10. Situation specific national flexibility
  11. National core values
  12. Freedom from geopolitical constraints

To remind you of what I said in the beginning, we have to take it somewhat on faith that Diamond has not only correctly translated these factors from the personal to the national, but that they maintain similar utility when expanded to this level as well. But, once we do, each of them provides an interesting jumping off point when talking about the nation and the world.

1- National consensus that one’s nation is in crisis: This one is interesting precisely because Diamond’s first US crisis is a lack of consensus. Which means we may be dead right out of the gate. When Diamond gives examples of past national crises that have been successfully overcome, I can’t recall any example where the nation didn’t get this first step right, and indeed everything would appear to follow from it.

2- Acceptance of national responsibility to do something: For the worldwide crises Diamond mentions I think we do better on point 1, but then stumble as soon as we get to point two. I imagine just about every nation is worried about nukes and climate change, but accepting responsibility has been a lot harder. Even when we look at the European response to climate change, which is about as good as it gets, it’s far too anemic to really make any significant difference.

3- Building a fence, to delineate the national problems needing to be solved: This factor relates to dividing things that are working well from things that need to be fixed. Marshalling your strengths to combat your weaknesses. And once again the problem comes from the fact, in the US, we don’t merely disagree about what should go where, we have exactly opposite views on placement. To take just one example, one side identifies immigration as a strength, the more the better, and one side identifies it as the central problem which needs to be solved. This doesn’t merely apply at the national level. As I just pointed out, one way to solve inequality is for people from poorer countries to move to richer countries, but if that increases their carbon footprint then that makes climate change worse. The solution to one problem makes the other problem worse.

4- Getting material and financial help from other nations: Needless to say, we should hope this factor ends up being unimportant. Since there are really no countries in a position to materially help the US, and definitely no other planets in a position to materially help the entire world.

5- Using other nations as models of how to solve the problems: This is another factor which may work great on a personal level, and even pretty well on a national level, but which is entirely impossible at the level of the world. And in fact it’s why I continually come back to Fermi’s Paradox. In theory, we should have other worlds to use as models, but for some reason we don’t and the implications of that should be frightening. Beyond all that it’s unclear how much the US can use other nations as models either, our size, culture and power make our problems somewhat unique.

6- National identity: Here the US does a little bit better, even so, the argument could be made that one more part of the fracture involves questioning exactly what that identity is. From the perspective of the world I think, at best, even if you could come up with an identity, that it would be particularly weak, and easily swamped by the various national identities.

7- Honest national self-appraisal: Much of what was said about the last few issues applies here as well, but I will admit that I don’t have a strong sense for whether we’re currently engaged in honest national self-appraisal, or if all of the conflict and divisiveness and debate going on is actually avoiding the issue. And, yet again, moving from the US to the world would only appear to make this problem worse.

8- Historical experience of previous national crises: At least at the national level I think this is finally someplace where it might be possible to engage with this factor in a useful fashion. That said I see no evidence that we are. If anything I think we’re bringing up crises that were previously solved (or at least shelved) and making them into a new crisis. (For example reparations for slavery.) At the world wide level there might have been past crises, but I think most of them were military in nature, thus I’m not sure how much past experience helps with our current issues. Which is to say if we end up with another Hitler I think the world is ready, outside of that, not so much

9- Dealing with national failure: Here at last I feel like we’ve arrived at a point with some nuance. Nations may frequently fail on their first attempt to fix a problem, or fail in other areas. How they react to these failures can say a lot about whether they will eventually find success. Has the US already failed? Does Vietnam count as a failure? How did we deal with that failure? Is the nation as a whole teachable or is part of the problem? Will the US only engage in a major course change when our failure is impossible to ignore? At a worldwide level has the world failed? Can we recover from a failure that is truly worldwide, to say nothing of learning from it?

10- Situation specific national flexibility: Occasionally crises require flexibility, occasionally they require rigid adherence to a well-defined set of principles. It appears easier to rigidly adhere than to be flexible and many of the examples of nations successfully negotiating a crisis involved extreme flexibility. One fantastic example of this is Meiji Japan. I am not detecting any great degree of flexibility when I consider the worldwide response to crises, and that goes double for the US.

11- National core values: This is different than a national identity, and speaks more to religion, and virtues like honesty. I once again think the key problem, and the reason why Diamond is so alarmed is that the chief crisis currently afflicting the US is one which precisely undermines all of the tools nations normally use to deal with such a crisis. And beyond that we can add this to the long list of factors where a particular tool appears entirely absent at the level of the entire world.

12- Freedom from geopolitical constraints: Finally we reach the one factor where the US actually has significant strength (though, it should be mentioned, even this has been diminished). In dealing with it’s crises the US doesn’t have to really worry about whether Canada will approve. Or whether Mexico might take it as an opportunity to invade. It doesn’t even have to worry very much about Russia or China (as current tariffs demonstrate). As the most powerful country it has wide latitude to deal with any crisis in just about whatever manner it sees fit. But this is the very last step. All the power in the world can’t help you if you don’t know how to apply it. From a worldwide perspective, all I will say is does the world have zero geopolitical constraints or all the geopolitical constraints? I suspect the latter.

It would appear that there are significant reasons to wonder whether any of the factors can be used by the US or the world to overcome the crises Diamond identifies. And you might imagine that this would end up being a strike against the book. And perhaps for some people it is. But for me it’s one of the things I like about it. Pinker says there’s nothing to worry about. Diamond says there may be something to worry about and the tools we have for dealing with it would appear to be inadequate. My own position is much closer to Diamond’s and similar to most people I enjoy reading things that I agree with.

Criticisms

As I mentioned in the beginning, one of the biggest criticisms of this book is that you probably can’t take something that was designed for individuals and usefully apply it to nations. I disagree with this, I think there is some utility, but let’s not kid ourselves, this is mostly because every other system is even worse, not because Diamond’s framework is outstanding. Also as you can see from my rundown of the 12 factors, even if they are useful, most of them seem hard to apply to the US and the world.

Also like many individuals he ends up with a somewhat incoherent policy on immigration. For example he talks about how Japan’s declining population is a good thing because it will lessen the resource crisis they’re having, but then goes on to suggest (as many people do) that Japan needs to admit more immigrants. Won’t that deplete their resources even faster? I pointed out a similar conflict between inequality and climate change.

Finally as has been mentioned this is not Guns, Germs and Steel, and if you come expecting something like that you’ll be disappointed. It is nevertheless a perfectly interesting and useful book, if you’re not expecting something revolutionary.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

It might be possible to identify the factors that go into helping a nation successfully navigate a crisis, but even if it is, we’re still probably in a lot of trouble.


Among the many factors for having a successful blog is almost certainly some amount of money. I’m not sure what the other factors are, but I suspect that whatever they are I could do better. If you want to at least help with the factor I have identified consider donating.


The Top of the Curve

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I’ve been playing this game called Hexcells Infinite. It’s kind of like minesweeper, but with at least a half dozen ways of indicating how many “mines” there are in a given cell. The way play generally progresses is with long pauses of thinking interspersed with fairly rapid clicking once you figure something out because that initial insight cascades to reveal a bunch of nearby “mines”. It’s quite an enjoyable game and if you’re looking for something casual with a playtime of between 5 and 20 minutes I’d recommend it (there are actually three editions: normal, plus and infinite). But that’s not why I bring the game up. I bring it up because the manner in which it plays is an example of a very, very tiny S-curve.

What’s an S-curve? It’s a curve that looks kind of like a flattened “S”, it starts out nearly horizontal, turns up into something that looks exponential and then flattens out again at the top. Just as my hexcells game play starts with not much activity as I think, before going through a burst, then gradually tapering off as I run out of obvious moves. Anywhere positive feedback loops battle with constraints you’ll see S-curves, and they’ve been a topic of frequent discussion recently (at least in my corner of the internet).

As far as that discussion goes, I’m probably somewhat late to the game, but I think thus far people have mostly been focused on smaller S-curves, perhaps not as tiny as the one I experience when playing Hexcells, but fairly small nonetheless. I want to go in the exact opposite direction and focus on the possible existence of very large S-curves. And, in particular, whether we’re near the top of any of those curves.

Energy

One of the points which has been made in other spaces is that if you combine a series of S-curves that combination looks very much like exponential growth. For example, take something like Moore’s Law, which is the exponential growth in the number of transistors that can fit in a given space. At first glance this may seem like one curve, but in reality it’s a bunch of S-curves stacked on top of each other.  You might have an S-curve associated with transistors and then another S-curve around advances with integrated circuits. Farther along there’s the S-curve related to various methods of lithography, and cpu architecture. But as each advance followed immediately on the heels of the last one, there was never a time for the Moore’s Law graph to reach the top of any given S-curve and flatten out. Though perhaps that’s finally about to happen.

My point in bringing this up is not to talk about computer chips, but to point out that something similar happened with energy. If you look at a graph of worldwide energy use, you’ll see a similar vaguely exponential curve, but you’ll notice that within that curve you have various smaller S-curves, sources of energy which start off small, grow really fast and then level off. First there was wood, then coal, then oil. And for a long time there was a lot of attention being paid to the inevitable leveling off of oil, or peak oil as it’s commonly known. Though, of course, just like with processors there was every reason to suspect that another S-curve would come along and keep the overall energy curve pointing up. Initially nuclear power seemed very promising as a candidate for this next innovation, but then it mostly stalled. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on who you ask, something else came along, fracking, and a new curve started. There’s also, of course, renewables, which could easily be a blog post on its own.\

As I mentioned previously in this space energy production has been growing at somewhere north of 2%/year for centuries, basically through the stacking of the S-curves I’ve been talking about. This growth has been fundamental to the world we now live in, and it’s unclear what happens if that growth stops, but it’s probably bad. And when we tie all of the above together there are many reasons to think that we may be facing exactly that possibility. That we have reached some sort of inflection point. For example here are some of the questions I’m pondering:

1- Do we still have to worry about the S-curve of peak oil. Or is it now an S-curve of peak natural gas?

2- As I pointed out, much of progress seems based on maintaining a certain rate of energy growth. What happens if the technology is there, but the political will isn’t? For example with nuclear power, and possibly fracking.

3- Related, if fracking is problematic even without its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, and nuclear is problematic despite its lack of the same. How does climate change factor into the continued use of certain sources of energy? So far it doesn’t seem to have had much of an impact either way.

4- In the past new technology was implemented as soon as it was feasible, with little regard to public opinion or politics. This is no longer the case. How does this new reality interact with our reliance on continual progress? Or with the diffuse harm that comes from technological innovation? (i.e. it’s one thing to demand 100% renewable energy, it’s quite another thing to actually make that switch.)

Antibiotics

I would offer up antibiotics and another example of a big S-curve. One that appears to definitely be plateauing out recently. I would also argue that unlike previous examples it’s less obviously a composite of lots of smaller S-curves. Yes, new antibiotics have been developed (though that process is getting harder and harder) but my impression is that most of the upward slope is entirely due to just having antibiotics available in the first place (i.e. penicillin) and that subsequent classes of antibiotics allowed us to hold our ground, but didn’t bring any big jump in effectiveness. All of which is to say that there is not some metaphorical nuclear power equivalent waiting to save us once antibiotics are no longer effective. We have one tool and we’ve already extracted most of the benefit.

Obviously I am not the first person to point this out, but my broader contention is that we may be reaching the top of a lot of our big S-curves and our effectiveness at dealing with the diminishing effectiveness of antibiotics could be indicative of how we deal with the other S-curves as they plateau out. So far the signs are not encouraging.

Manned Space Exploration

Manned space exploration has been in the news a lot lately. Not only is the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 coming up next month, but both SpaceX and Blue Origins have announced plans to send humans to Mars. And then of course there’s Trump’s very… interesting(?) tweet from a few days ago:

For all of the money we are spending, NASA should NOT be talking about going to the Moon – We did that 50 years ago. They should be focused on the much bigger things we are doing, including Mars (of which the Moon is a part), Defense and Science!

Where does all of this put us as far as an S-curve for the manned exploration of space? I would argue that we’ve already experienced an S-curve, one which plateaued awhile ago. Remember the description of S-curves we started with. It begins with a positive feedback loop. When you’re talking about the Apollo missions this is a little vague, but obviously competition with the Soviets was a big part of it. After an initial burst things taper off as you run into constraints. On that end things are not vague at all, the constraints of manned space exploration are legion, particularly when you’re trying to do it at the government level.

That last bit is key, I would argue that we have run through the governmental S-curve already and that we’re at the beginning of a new S-curve, the manned exploration of space by private entities. In this new stage we’ll see some more innovations (like reusable rockets) but eventually even Musk and Bezos will run out of places where they can economize and improve, and things will reach another plateau. We’ve seen S-curves which stack one after the other and give the impression of continuous exponential growth. This, on the other hand, is an example of two curves with a long gap in between. Also once the current private entity fueled curve plateaus it’s unclear when or in what domain another one will start. And what’s even more uncertain is whether that will happen before or after we have a long-term sustainable presence somewhere other than Earth. My bet would be that it will definitely be before, and that there is no smooth path to the stars, or even Mars.

Scientific method

At last we finally arrive at the S-curve that worries me most of all, the S-curve of scientific discovery. For decades if not centuries it has been more or less an article of faith that scientific progress would continue to increase in essentially an exponential fashion, and indeed by some measures it still is, for example scientific output, measured in terms of scientific papers, doubles every nine years. But are all of those papers just as impactful as Einstein’s On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies? Definitely not, meaning that at best the number of scientific papers is a very rough proxy for scientific progress, not a direct measure of it. But even if you disagree, and argue that the ever doubling number of papers means that scientific progress hasn’t slowed down, there is absolutely no law that says that it never will. And many reasons to think that it’s already happening.

Not too long ago I read The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. It was just before I started reviewing everything I read, but maybe I’ll go back and pick that one up, because it was truly a great book. One of the things that was striking is how amazingly fruitful the pre-war years were for physics. Everywhere you turned people were uncovering new things, the structure of the atom, the existence of neutrons, the discovery of fission. (George Gamow also noticed this leading him to write the book Thirty Years that Shook Physics). All of this is a classic description of the bottom of the S-curve. As discoveries and scientists feed off one another it produces a positive feedback loop of understanding.

These days, we’ve got far more scientists working on things, publishing, as I mentioned far more papers, but the discoveries of the last 30 years have been much less consequential. All of the laws of physics where things are unchanging and easy to replicate, have largely been uncovered, or will require spending billions of dollars on a new particle collider. It’s pretty clear that all of the places where the scientific method was easy to apply have been mined out. That we have picked all of the low hanging fruit. The S-curve is starting to plateau as we bump up against various constraints

In part this is because much of science has moved on to experiments about human physiology and behavior, where there are numerous constraints. It’s difficult to establish control groups, things aren’t unchanging, and there are vast differences between individuals, meaning that instead of groundbreaking discoveries that shake our understanding of the universe we get small discoveries about how we just have to assume a “power pose” and it will immediately make us more confident. Worse than the smallness of these discoveries is the fact that 50% of the time they fail to replicate (like the research about the power pose). That sounds a lot like a plateau to me.

Tying all of this together, we have this idea that progress is a smooth curve moving ever upward towards a better and better future, and indeed this has been the case for the last few decades and in some cases for the last few centuries, but as I pointed out a couple of times, the bottom of an S-curve is indistinguishable from exponential growth. It’s only as you get farther along that the difference is apparent. And I would argue that we’re finally reaching the stage where it’s clear that most of the things we’ve come to expect from progress aren’t exponential, that they won’t grow forever, and that in fact we’re nearing the top of a lot of S-curves which have been powering civilization for a long time. And as they start to plateau it’s unclear what will happen

This is not to say that progress is over, even if most things should be viewed as an S-curve instead of something that grows exponentially, there are lots of S-curves remaining, and we’re still at the bottom/high growth part of many of them. But it’s unclear how much comfort this should give us. Saying that while we may be close to peak antibiotics, we’re nowhere near peak Facebook, is not particularly reassuring.

Undoubtedly lumping all trends under the heading of an S-curve will turn out to be too crude, some trends will end up being more complicated, and some really will turn out to essentially grow forever. But just as undoubtedly some of the trends that have powered the modern world over the last few hundred years are S-curves, and they will plateau if they haven’t already. How we will deal with these plateaus? These changes in direction? Will the process be smooth and uneventful or catastrophic? For a long time we’ve essentially been able to innovate our way out of the problems we’ve created, but we’re coming to a time when we’ll no longer be able to count on that.


I know that at least some of my readers love nothing more than proving me wrong. Well if you were to look at donations, they also resemble an S-curve. This is a chance to prove me wrong, make it grow exponentially!


Books I Finished in May (With One from April)

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The Collapsing Empire

By: John Scalzi

384 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: C+

Who should read this book?

If you like Scalzi, particularly his sense of humor, you should read the book. If you like Wil Wheaton you should listen to the audiobook, he does a pretty good job (better than his work on Ready Player One.)

If you’re offended by swearing you should definitely not read this book.

If you’re only going to read one science fiction book, it definitely shouldn’t be this one.

Representative passage:

“You threw him into space?”

“Yup.”

“And he didn’t die?”

“We only threw him out a little bit.”

Thoughts

I’m not a huge Scalzi fan. That said the plot was interesting enough that I’ll probably finish the series. His world building was vaguely interesting. I did like this more than Old Man’s War.

Scalzi is, or at least tries to be funny. If his style of humor clicks with you, then you’ll probably enjoy the book quite a bit, if it doesn’t then his whole schtick get’s kind of grating. He’s kind of the science fiction version of Cards Against Humanity, if you like playing that game, my guess is that you’ll like the book.

This is not great science fiction a la China Miéville or Neal Stephenson. But as light diverting science fiction it does okay.

Criticisms

When I was in high school I wrote a few cheeky science fiction and fantasy stories, where all the characters had one trait turned up to 11, and nothing was particularly serious. That’s what this book reminds me of. That or perhaps high quality fan fiction. Which is to say the writing feels like something a well edited high schooler would write.

Books I would read before this one:

There is a whole universe of books I would read instead of this one:

If you’re looking for light pulpy action, read the Expanse series.

And, if you’re just looking for something funny, for heaven’s sake, if by some miracle you haven’t read Douglas Adams, do that!


Porcelain: A Memoir

By: Moby

416 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: A

Who should read this book?

If you like Moby’s music and you like biographies, you should read this.

If you’re interested in the nitty gritty of how someone goes from being all but homeless to a massive success you should also read this book.

Representative passage:

It represented a world I didn’t know, the opposite of where I was—and I hated where I was. I hated the poverty, the cigarette smoke, the drug use, the embarrassment, the loneliness. And Diana Ross was promising me that there was a world that wasn’t stained with sadness and resignation. Somewhere there was a world that was sensual and robotic and hypnotic. And clean.

Thoughts

The autobiography is a weird medium. It’s always going to risk descending into narcissism, and while it’s far more intimate than the biography, it risks being much less objective as well. This book, however, manages to comes across as both very intimate and surprisingly objective.

On top of all that, Moby is actually a great writer (and a good narrator), with interesting stories and a refreshing charm. I particularly liked the story of him starting out, living in a warehouse in New Jersey, commuting into New York (hiding in the bathroom because he didn’t have the money for a fare) and just dreaming that one day he could live in New York and maybe release a few dance singles.

Criticisms

Not many, other than the fact that “autobiographies by contemporary musicians” is kind of a niche genre, and I’m not sure how much of an appeal it has for my typical reader.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

That a lot of things go into being successful: passion, timing, luck, talent, persistence, etc. And that even if you have all those things, it’s going to be hard.


Possible Minds: Twenty-Five Ways of Looking at AI

By: John Brockman (Editor), Various

320 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: B

Who should read this book?

If you’re really into the philosophy of AI and you want lots of different perspectives, you should read this book.

I would not, however, recommend it to anyone as an introduction.

Representative passage:

I see the Possible Minds Project as an ongoing dynamical emergent system, a presentation of the ideas of a community of sophisticated thinkers who are bringing their experience and erudition to bear in challenging the prevailing digital AI narrative as they communicate their thoughts to one another. The aim is to present a mosaic of views that will help make sense out of this rapidly emerging field.

Thoughts

Like many people I’m fascinated by AI, and when I heard about this book, I figured why not? And in the end it turned out to be a perfectly adequate collection of essays by brilliant individuals, but nothing particularly special. None of the essays jumped out at me, and I don’t recall any genuinely new insights into the issue. Steven Pinker’s essay may have been the most interesting because his view was the most contrarian, but even there, it was mostly all stuff I had heard before.

The book also engages in a weird framing device with everyone keying off a 70 year old book. The Human Use of Human Beings by Norbert Wiener, which I guess helps constrain the discussion, but also makes it even less accessible, and gives it an air of pretension. “If you were a brilliant individual, like me than of course you’d be familiar with this out of print book, and would have realised long ago Norbert Wiener’s uncanny prescience.”

Criticisms

My biggest criticism is that I’m not sure what the point of the book is. It’s not an introduction, nor is it breaking any exciting new ground. It’s neither as in-depth as a book like Superintelligence nor as accessible as any of a hundred other pieces. It’s perfectly adequate and frequently interesting, but it’s overarching theme is both far too diffuse, and at the same time incredibly narrow.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

AI can be connected to a lot of different academic fields. Not all of those connections are going to be interesting.


Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick (Reviewed earlier in separate post.)


The Inevitable Apostasy and the Promised Restoration (Religious)

By: Tad R. Callister

484 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: A-

Who should read this book?

If you’re a member of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints (LDS), and you enjoy reading books about religion, then I think you’ll enjoy this book.

If you’re not LDS, then there are two other groups of people who might benefit from reading this book:

  • People who are curious about theology in general, particularly early Christian doctrine, for which it provides a good overview.
  • Someone who is favorably disposed to Christianity, but is unsure which denomination to align with.

Representative passage

The early Christian writers taught that the preaching of the gospel to the dead was not limited to the Savior’s few days in the spirit prison. The Shepherd of Hermas informs us that the apostles and others followed the Savior to the spirit world after their respective deaths…

Thoughts

This is a very exhaustive comparison of modern LDS theology with early Christian theology, and I came away from it very impressed not only by the author but by the staggering number of ways in which LDS doctrine lines up very well with early Christian theology, and where both share very little resemblance to historical Protestant and Catholic doctrine. Which definitely speaks to some sort of Apostasy, thus the title of the book.

In particular I thought the chapters examining how teachings and ordinances of the early Church were changed or lost, with new ones taking their place, were especially interesting. Not only was this the meat of the book, but it seemed to draw in the most quotes from the early Church Fathers, which gave things quite a bit of heft

Criticisms

This is one of those books that is very persuasive, but you have to wonder what a book written from the other side would look like. Is it possible Callister is overselling some pieces of evidence and ignoring others? It feels pretty comprehensive, but it’s also clearly written from a perspective which is biased towards the LDS church.

Additionally, he ends up with a list of 13 pieces of evidence and each get a chapter, and essentially equal weight, but not all pieces of evidence are equal. For example the idea that there would have been no Dark Ages without the apostasy, seems far more speculative than some of the other evidence he offers.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

Most of what seems unusual or even blasphemous about LDS doctrine, turns out to have at least some support, and in many cases a lot of support, in the writings of the early church fathers.


The City & The City

By: China Miéville

336 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: B+

Who should read this book?

If you’ve read other stuff by China Miéville and enjoyed it, you should read this book.

If you’ve been meaning to read something by China Miéville, this is a good place to start.

Finally, if you like hardboiled detective stories, or more literary science fiction, you’ll probably enjoy this book.

Representative passage:

How could one not think of the stories we all grew up on, that surely the Ul Qomans grew up on too? Ul Qoman man and Besź maid, meeting in the middle of Copula Hall, returning to their homes to realise that they live, grosstopically, next door to each other, spending their lives faithful and alone, rising at the same time, walking crosshatched streets close like a couple, each in their own city, never breaching, never quite touching, never speaking a word across the border.

Thoughts

It’s hard to talk about The City & The City without explaining the central conceit of the novel. And for that I’m going to just be lazy and steal from Wikipedia:

The City & the City takes place in the fictional Eastern European twin city-states of Besźel and Ul Qoma.

These two cities actually occupy much of the same geographical space, but via the volition of their citizens (and the threat of the secret power known as Breach), they are perceived as two different cities. A denizen of one city must dutifully “unsee” (that is, consciously erase from their mind or fade into the background) the denizens, buildings, and events taking place in the other city – even if they are an inch away. This separation is emphasised by the style of clothing, architecture, gait, and the way denizens of each city generally carry themselves. Residents of the cities are taught from childhood to recognise things belonging to the other city without actually seeing them. Ignoring the separation, even by accident, is called “breaching” – a terrible crime for the citizens of the two cities, even worse than murder.

As interesting and provocative as these ideas are, at its heart The City & The City is basically a hardboiled detective story, and in that respect it succeeds admirably with fantastic characters and great interactions between the characters.  Miéville is also known for his intricate settings and this is no exception, it felt both very alien, very Eastern European, and very deep all at the same time. The conceit of the two cities which exist both in entirely the same space and entirely separate was well-crafted and deftly explored. For those who decide to listen to it as an audiobook, I thought the narration was perfect, and definitely added to the Eastern European vibe.

All of the above being said, The City & The City suffered from a major Teen Wolf problem…

In the movie Teen Wolf, Michael J. Fox turns into a werewolf in the middle of a basketball game, and once it’s clear that he’s really good at basketball, everything continues kind of as normal. Which is to say the national media doesn’t show up. He’s not subject to extensive medical tests. It doesn’t make everyone question everything they once knew, etc. The movie doesn’t shy away from the consequences of him being a werewolf within his friend group, and to an extent his high school, but it completely ignores any consequences outside of that. But if you look past all of that Teen Wolf is a perfectly fine movie.

In The City & The City something very similar is happening. You have a novel which is set in our world, and as far as you can tell everything is the same in this world except with respect to these two cities. And similar to Teen Wolf, the novel does a great job of describing the consequences this has on the citizens of the two cities, and on the laws and customs, but it almost entirely ignores the consequences this arrangement would have on the broader world. This is fine, and sometimes art requires a suspension of disbelief, but The City & The City asks for more than that, which takes me to…

Criticisms

Without going into too many spoilers, the big problem I had with The City & The City was that I felt like it altered what I was disbelieving near the end of the book, which had the effect of destroying the suspension. I suspect, and in fact I know, that other people were not nearly as bothered by this as I was, but this is not their review it’s mine. And this shift detracted quite a bit from my overall enjoyment of the book.

I can be a little more clear if I spoil things a little bit. If you don’t want to be spoiled skip the next paragraph.

Connected to the problem of changing what the novel asked me to disbelieve, the novel gave every indication that it was going to be one of those books where there would be a big and exciting reveal at the end about the nature of the weirdness which existed between the two cities. So as I read it, that’s the bucket I put it in, and I was excited for that reveal, but it turns out it really wasn’t in that bucket after all

Books I would read before this one:

In the very narrow niche of the New Weird movement, I’m not sure there is a book I would read before this one. I certainly prefer other writers like Stephenson to Miéville, but within his little domain he’s clearly a master. I guess I might put Perdido Street Station ahead of this book, mostly because it’s more Miéville-ly.


13 Ways of Going on a Field Trip: Stories about Teaching and Learning

By: Spotted Toad

152 pages

Format: Kindle

Rating: B+

Who should read this book?

I haven’t really followed Spotted Toad’s blog, but if you do, then I imagine you might want to read this book.

If you’re interested in the Teach for America program, and want to get a sense of what it was like from the inside, then I would read this book.

Representative passage

In practice, of course, the accused kid very well may have been better off doin’ nuthin’ than doing his work. Doing your work means writing things down; in middle school at least, a practice that for many kids more-or-less assures that their full attention is focused on forming or copying letters rather than on the topic of discussion or relevant thoughts. For many kids keeping them writing keeps them quiet enough to assure a simulacrum of learning in the classroom, but may at times prevent actual learning from taking place

Thoughts

I picked this up on a whim after seeing it mentioned on Steve Sailer’s blog. He described it as an “elegantly oblique memoir”. When I read that description, I think skipped past the word “oblique”. And I picked it up hoping for more of a tell-all behind the scenes account of modern teaching. There was some of that, but mostly it was somewhat sweet stories of kids and teachers doing what they could. Some of them would succeed and some would fail, with probably more kids in the latter category than the former. There is a lot of insight in the book about the problems of modern education, but the insights are more poetic than pragmatic.

Criticisms

Most of the stories were quite good, but none were really incredible. Also the book was very episodic, and I would have preferred a tighter connection between chapters and clearer themes that got built up over the course of the narrative.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book

That the problems of education are many and complicated, and that teacher quality should not be very high on the list.


Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee

By: Casey Cep

336 pages

Format: Audiobook

Rating: A

Who should read this book?

If you’re a fan of Harper Lee and/or True Crime, you’ll enjoy this book.

If you want to be on the cutting edge of what the intelligentsia are reading this summer, this is a good book for that. (It’s been covered by The Economist, Slate, The New York Times, The Washington Post and NPR, plus a host of local papers.)

Representative passage:

It took a few telephone calls, but finally Lee agreed to sit with Capote for the interview and meet the photographer Harry Benson near Capote’s apartment at the UN Plaza. The old tree-house friends walked around Second Avenue, talking in what Benson remembers was an almost private language, sweet and loving, like siblings. A lot had transpired between the two of them by then, including no small share of envy and anger and disapproval, but there was no mention of any of it that day: gray-haired now and moving more slowly, the pair walked around New York together as if it were the old, familiar courthouse square. Lee had turned fifty that year, and Capote fifty-two, but they could summon their childhood as if it were yesterday. A kindergarten teacher had whacked Capote’s hand with a ruler for reading too well, Lee remembered to the reporter, a small episode but one that said plenty about the lives of brilliant misfits in their small southern town. It was in that interview that Lee said of them, evocatively and enigmatically, “We are bound by a common anguish.”

Thoughts

I was in that category of people who like both true crime and Harper Lee. And while I normally pick up books and sit on them for months (if not decades) I grabbed this one and listened to it almost immediately.

The book is composed of two halfs, one half tells the story of Rev. Willie Maxwell, a black preacher who almost certainly murdered numerous relatives in order to collect life insurance on them. The second half tells the story of Harper Lee, and particularly her attempt to create a second novel from the story of Maxwell.

Both stories are great. Though I think I preferred the story of Harper Lee. These days the fact that she only wrote one book is a piece of trivia, or an interesting fact you might bring out if To Kill a Mockingbird ever comes up. At most, it occupies a role as a somewhat nebulous cautionary tale about the dangers of sudden fame, but for Lee the struggle to write a second book occupied more than 50 years of her life. (Go Set a Watchman was written before Mockingbird, so it doesn’t count.) You can pack a lot of regrets, missteps, sorrow and alcohol into 50 years. And Lee did just that.

Criticisms

This is essentially two books, and you imagine that a more skilled writer, rather than having two halves, one for Maxwell and one for Lee, could have figured out a way to interweave both stories into a cohesive narrative. But maybe it just illustrates one of the lessons of the book: The perfect is the enemy of the good, and that it’s better to have the book we got then to never get a book at all.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

Writing something really great is hard. Doing it again is even harder.


The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms (Incerto)

By: Nassim Nicholas Taleb

176 pages

Format: Print

Rating: B

Who should read this book?

If you’re a Taleb completist you should read this book.

If you like pithy quotes, then you also might want to check out this book.

Representative passage:

The rationalist imagines an imbecile-free society; the empiricist an imbecile-proof one, or, even better, a rationalist-proof one.

Thoughts

I am a huge fan of Taleb, I have even gone so far as to call myself a disciple of Taleb. Antifragile and The Black Swan are tied for my favorite non-fiction books of all time. Fooled by Randomness is incredible, and while I found Skin in the Game a little cantankerous I still thoroughly enjoyed it. I have pre-ordered the forthcoming deluxe collection of all his books (which he calls the Incerto) and I’m eagerly awaiting its arrival at the end of July. As you can imagine, from all of the foregoing, I am very biased towards being favorably disposed to anything Taleb writes, and despite that I would have a hard time recommending this book.

The book is a collection of aphorisms by Taleb, and while some are real gems, others, honestly border on the juvenile. This was my second time reading the book. The first time I read it, I did so like I would any other book, straight through over the course of a few days. This is not what Taleb intended. He recommends that you read no more than four aphorisms in one sitting and preferably, that you select them randomly. I did not go that far, but I did read one page a day for 148 days. That did improve the book, and I certainly got more out of it, but it did not elevate it to the level of his other books. But I did pick out quite a few gems using this method, for example:

The twentieth century was the bankruptcy of the social utopia; the twenty-first will be that of the technological one.

On the other hand, for an example of something which bordered on the juvenile we turn to…

Criticisms

When he says something like this:

I suspect that IQ, SAT, and school grades are tests designed by nerds so they can get high scores in order to call each other intelligent.

It kind of reminds me of Ogre yelling Nerds! And of course it’s not just nerds he has a problem with, anyone who’s followed Taleb for any length of time knows that he doesn’t like economists and academics much either. This is on full display in The Bed of Procrustes. A few examples:

There are designations, like “economist,” “prostitute,” or “consultant,” for which additional characterization doesn’t add information

Academics are only useful when they try to be useless (say, as in mathematics and philosophy) and dangerous when they try to be useful.

We should make students recompute their GPAs by counting their grades in finance and economics backward.

Having read all of the rest of his stuff, I understand the underlying point, but given that his philosophy is so often the opposite of conventional wisdom I think it only sinks in with quite a bit of explanation, which is precisely what you get in the rest of his books. But shorn of that explanation and reduced to a sentence or two, it risks coming across as petty or pointless.

As I said there are some gems, but I think you’re better served by reading his other books than trying to find them here.

If you were going to take only one thing from the book:

I will let Taleb provide the final word

If my detractors knew me better they would hate me even more.


Given that this is the first time I’m trying a dump of book reviews I’m very interested in feedback. Would you prefer them to be split up? Should I add anchor links to allow you to quickly jump to a review? Should I exclude certain genres of books? Also, I should point out, if you donate, whatever suggestions you make? I have to follow them.


Potpourri of Abortion Commentary

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


Two posts ago I did a long one on abortion, in particular the new anti-abortion laws which had recently been passed by Georgia and Alabama. It was not my intent to return to the subject so soon, but I got a fair number of comments, both here and via email that seemed to require a more in-depth response, and so rather than replying in the comments where very few will see it, or via email where only one person would see it, I thought I’d make a post out of it. (We’re still in a position where not many people will see it, but I get a post out of it.) I’m going to bounce around a lot, so be warned.

1- Abortion, the Sex Recession, and Fertility Rates

To begin with one of my readers made the connection between a previous post where I talked about young men having less sex, and making abortion illegal. His theory was that the cost of raising a kid is greater than ever, and that this is already exerting a downward pressure on sex and intimacy. If this is the case, then what happens when you no longer have the option of abortion? Won’t that make things even worse, he reasoned, causing still more men to go their own way, and yet lower fertility?

On its face this theory seems reasonable. To begin with, one of the major theories for declining birthrates is the expense associated with children. In particular children have gone from being an asset (additional very cheap labor to help you work the farm) to a liability. And yes, kids are more expensive than ever, though the perception of that expense is worse than the reality. BLOGThis website seems to indicate that in inflation adjusted terms the cost of raising a child was 203k in 1960 compared to 233k in 2015. That said, I think there’s a valid argument to be made that the real massive increase has been in time and attention, and other less quantifiable costs. For one thing, it generally takes two incomes to cover things now, where in 1960 one income was sufficient.

Still, when you bundle all of this together how much of an impact does it have on the sexual activity rate of young men? My sense is that the problem is not that there are plenty of women who are willing to have sex, but young men are declining because it might lead to a pregnancy, and that pregnancy might lead to a child, and that child would be really expensive. Rather, my sense is that the chief obstacle is step one, finding a woman in the first place. And while there has been some tightening of abortion availability even before the recent flurry of laws, it seems hard to imagine that this is what’s behind the tripling of young men under 30 who aren’t having sex over the last ten years.

The reader also pointed out that downstream of all this was the issue of fertility, where I have also expressed concerns. And there are some interesting questions to consider in this arena. What will Georgia’s fertility rate look like if the recently passed law survives the inevitable legal challenges? Does it go up because of all the births which otherwise would have been ended by abortion? Or does it go down because they’ll be even less sex now that the danger of an unplanned pregnancy is greater. Or as my reader said:

It’s not hard to envision all kinds of delicious dysfunction later in life where, in a white hot heat of frustration and rage, the parents tell the unwanted child that they exist only because “UNFORTUNATELY we lived in GEORGIA! The government made me keep you!”

In any event, these are questions I would be interested in the answer to. Of course that will only be possible if the law isn’t struck down and we have the data to make a comparison, which for my money is a consideration which should actually carry some weight in this whole debate, though, to be clear, not very much. If all this happens, I’m not sure what I expect to see. It was never very easy to get an abortion in Georgia, so I’m not sure that the law would make an appreciable difference in terms of fertility. On the other hand, as I pointed out, I don’t think the unplanned pregnancy consideration is much of a factor in young men not having sex, but maybe it’s a bigger deal than I think.

The key point is that there is a lot going on with fertility, how much sex people are having, and morality in general. It would be interesting to consider an alternate world, of absolutely enforced Catholic morality: no birth control and no abortion. What does the fertility rate look like in this world? Is it dramatically lower than our current world because almost no one has sex? Because they know that if they do there’s a good chance they’ll end up saddled with a child? Or is it dramatically higher because all of the kids that were avoided or aborted in our world now exist? I don’t know. I suspect the latter. But in this day and age I wouldn’t be surprised to be wrong either.

2- Slippery Slope Arguments

The reader who emailed me brought up one more subject, which I’m including because I think it is something I could do better:

I noted the difference between your slippery slope response with respect to transgender protections–“Where does it end??”–versus a very relaxed stance about the admittedly vanishingly small number of women who would actually be imprisoned for life for getting an out-of-state abortion.

It is very easy to fall into a trap where you apply the slippery slope argument when it’s convenient, but then go on to ignore it when it isn’t. But I think looking at the specific examples of transgender protections and women who might be imprisoned for out of state abortions illustrates some of the criteria I hope to apply when making that particular argument.

To begin with, we have actually experienced what happens when abortion is illegal. We can look back to the 60’s and early 70’s and see whether there was a slippery slope back then. Were there large numbers of women imprisoned, only to be freed by Roe v. Wade? Did the states where it was illegal resemble A Handmaid’s Tale? As far as I know neither of these things happened the last time abortion was illegal, which inclines me to believe that they won’t happen the next time it’s illegal either. I do have some concerns that the nation can’t survive much more drama in this area, which is a whole other issue. But if it can, then not only do I foresee nothing resembling A Handmaid’s Tale, I also think Roe will be reinstated in some fashion even if the pro-choice side does achieve a temporary victory at the Supreme Court. (My prediction is that if Roe is overturned that it will be reinstated within 10 years, assuming that the repeal doesn’t trigger some political black swan.)

On the other hand, when we look at the changes we’re making to accommodate transgender individuals, it’s historically unprecedented. In spite of this, there is still a good chance that we’ll end up in some sort of equilibrium, that there will be no slippery slope. But given that we have no experience in this area, I think the we need to take the slippery slope argument more seriously than in the previous example. A lack of data makes it harder to know which outcome to expect, and I think the vast majority of things I talk about fall into this category. To put it another way, it’s taken over 45 years for the first significant challenge of Roe to emerge, and even if it somehow manages to succeed, it’s mostly just going back to conditions we already have experience with. If there is a slope in this area, it’s not a very steep one. On the other hand there are several measures of transgender trends that look essentially exponential.

If I had said there’s a slippery slope towards an increasing number of late term abortions that would be more interesting, and more controversial. There have in fact been academic papers arguing that post-birth abortions should be legal as well, but I think people’s opinion about this has remained pretty static, though I might be tempted to argue that the pro-choice side is moving towards later abortions at about the same speed as the pro-life crowd is moving towards overturning Roe.

3- Bodily Autonomy Leading to a Lack of Support

Moving on, a comment from Mark made a couple of intriguing points, to start with he points out that a principle of absolute bodily autonomy may have some unintended side effects:

I saw some guy talking about how he knocked up his girlfriend. She asked him what he thought about whether she should continue the pregnancy or have an abortion. He was proud to report he told her the whole thing was none of his business and he wasn’t going to try and influence her decision one way or another.

He was proud that after participating to create a difficult situation for her, when she craved counsel and support the most, he abandoned her?

This is an interesting and believable second order effect of the push for women to have absolute right over their pregnancies, one which probably deserves further examination. Also it might be useful to imagine all the ways in which men might react, based on their various ideologies:

  • Selfish Progressive: Demands woman get an abortion because he doesn’t want to risk having to pay child support.
  • “Enlightened” Progressive: As above. Maybe with the addition of offering to pay for the abortion if that’s her choice.
  • Compassionate Pro-life: When asked, advises her to keep the baby, offers marriage, and help.
  • Fire and Brimstone Pro-life: Tells her she’s going to go to Hell if she gets an abortion, perhaps abandoning her when she suggests it’s an option.

I’m sure there are probably more than that, and those that I’ve listed are also something of a caricature, but if we agree with Mark’s point that the “guy” in question shouldn’t have abandoned the girl, which of the other three would pro-choice advocates recommend? Presumably none of them. So if the abandonment approach isn’t ideal, what is the ideal approach, again, from a pro-choice perspective? I’m genuinely curious.

4- Showing Insufficient Concern For the Women Involved

This is the area where the criticisms were the most justified. To begin with, as you can probably guess the unintended effects of absolute bodily autonomy was not Mark’s primary point, but it does lead into it:

With abortion I feel like there’s all this oxygen wasted about whether or not the State should allow/endorse/fund it. And the real tragedy is that the debate keeps people on both sides from supporting women in making difficult choices. If a woman has an abortion she’s either condemned to burn in hell, or she should be applauded for dealing with the inconvenience.

But this isn’t like the decision to buy a new cell phone, and it’s not as morally straightforward as whether to strangle defenseless old ladies. (Hint: don’t strangle old ladies.) The decision will have lasting consequences either way, and pretending there’s no decision here, or that the decision is less impactful than, say who you marry, doesn’t just ignore the problem, it is the problem.

This is a reasonable criticism of most abortion commentary but particularly my own, and it’s closely echoed by that leveled by another commenter, Andrew:

Your proposed punishment seems like you think abortion is akin to a luxury purchase. You also admit that for all practical purposes the laws we’re talking about will criminalize all abortion and yet you have stated your moral position isn’t absolute. This seems a strange take. I don’t think I have a counter to something that seems so conflicted.

Other than saying you want mercy shown to women who have abortions illegally, you seem to have no thoughts on how abortion or lack of abortion availability impacts the mothers, families and by extension, society at large. Moral stances without thought for practical impact is folly.

There’s a lot going on in this comment, much of which I will get to in a second, but as he does point out, other than when I said, “I would want the greatest possible mercy shown to [the] women [having the abortions].” I didn’t spend any time talking about how enormously consequential the decision is, as Mark points out, or about the potential impact of abortion restrictions on pregnant women, their families and society, as Andrew mentions.

I should have talked more about that, and it should be a part of any discussion of abortion. I understand that these are real individuals making a very difficult decision. In fact as an illustration of how difficult that decision is, it’s interesting to note that while there are many behaviors which used to be completely off limits for depiction by TV and movies, but which are now depicted sympathetically or even positively. For example, things like divorce, teenage sex, adultery, drug use, etc. Actual abortions are still rarely depicted, and when they are, almost without exception, they’re framed as being very sad and awful. (I understand the movie Obvious Child is an exception, but I’ve never seen it. And I’m not aware of any other exceptions.)

On top of all this, I’m definitely libertarian enough to recognize that having the government insert itself into a difficult decision makes that decision way more difficult, and onerous, and terrible. So both Mark and Andrew are saying that I should have talked more about some other aspect of the abortion controversy either instead of, or in addition to the things I did talk about. And I agree, as I said, that’s a reasonable criticism, of not only discussions of abortion, but of most discussions period. The question is, after taking that criticism into account, what should I have done differently? How should I have talked about things?

5- General Principles of Discussion and Practicality

Let’s turn again to Andrew’s comment, since he brings up both things I could have done better, and places where I’m going to stick to my guns:

Your proposed punishment seems like you think abortion is akin to a luxury purchase.

He’s responding to a suggestion of mine that even though I am in favor of abortion providers being punished that I didn’t say anything about the severity of the punishment (in an earlier comment he accuses me of wanting to “bring down the hammer”.) The suggestion I made was that you could imagine abortion carrying $1000 fine, which would be large enough to act as a deterrent, but small enough that safe abortions, if really necessary, could still happen. But of course the point is not to get into the weeds of a he said/she said argument about this tiny point, but to examine whether I could have done better.

In this case, I will freely admit that I screwed up. It is fine to toss out a quick example to clarify things, but in my haste to come up with something which fit, I ended up proposing a scenario which is completely unrealistic. There is no conceivable scenario under which abortion doctors are lightly punished for abortions in what are essentially pro-life states, and then go on to continue operating in spite of these light punishments. Even if the law worked that way. (And here I think both of us could have done better, speeding carries a fee, is it considered a luxury purchase?) The polarization is too great. And given that polarization is my primary villain I ended up weakening my central point rather than strengthening it.

Moving on:

You also admit that for all practical purposes the laws we’re talking about will criminalize all abortion and yet you have stated your moral position isn’t absolute. This seems a strange take. I don’t think I have a counter to something that seems so conflicted.

Indeed my moral position isn’t absolute, but I don’t think there’s any conflict, because the laws aren’t absolute either. Despite what Andrew says the laws in question don’t criminalize all abortions, they only criminalize all abortions in Alabama and (effectively) Georgia. This is an important distinction, but one I think most people, perhaps including Andrew, overlook because they feel that there is one correct way of handling the abortion question, and that we should just implement that “correct way” across the entire nation. But I would argue instead that it is precisely because this is a super contentious issue where absolute morality is difficult to arrive at which means we may not be able to have a one size fits all policy.

In fact, at the risk of coming across as insufferably arrogant, paradoxically it’s humility that seems most missing from discussions of abortion, moreso even than the concern for women facing that difficult choice, which I mentioned previously. People are fixated on this current battle and deciding things permanently and for all time. But it takes humility and maybe a dose of realism to admit that this is not going to happen. That Alabama and Georgia are ***not*** everywhere. That the abortion issue doesn’t need to be decided ***for all time*** in May of 2019. That yes, any delay in deciding means bad things might happen, but also that a lot of people are making the credible argument that bad things have been happening since 1973. That the pro-life/anti-abortion crowd is not going to go away, and that this issue is not going to be decided once and for all, anytime soon, which takes us to Andrew’s final sentence:

Moral stances without thought for practical impact is folly.

As you can guess, based on what I just said, I don’t think I ignored the practical impact at all. Though I may have been looking at practical impacts at different level. As I said, I should have spent more time talking about the actual human cost of abortions. The difficulty of the decision, and the way in which the actual women facing it end up being abandoned by both sides of the issue, but I’m also going to argue that it’s entirely possible that other people spend too much time in this area, and ignore the fact that abortion is an incredibly thorny moral issue with no easy answers, which was the central point of that previous post.

And of course if we really want to discuss what’s practical, then practically I can’t imagine that I have any impact on the debate; I can’t imagine any laws will be passed or overturned based on my writing; and I’d be extraordinarily surprised to find out that I’d prevented even a single abortion. And even though all these things are undoubtedly true, I think the larger discussion, and the small part I played in that discussion is important. Whatever I might have implied, I’m glad for the comments that were made. And in the end I hope I contributed something useful however tiny that contribution might be.


This is more acknowledgement of error than I usually engage in (though still far less than what would be expected). If you’d like to support that sort of thing consider donating.


Horses, Rollaboards and Nukes

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Recently I’ve been working my way through the Iliad (the Richard Lattimore translation as recommended by Harold Bloom). And as I’ve been doing so, I noticed something I hadn’t on my previous read-through, something having to do with…horses.

Horses are mentioned a lot in the Iliad. One of Homer’s frequently used epithets is “breaker of horses”, but he also talks about “horse tamers”, and “horse drivers”. And of course everyone knows about the Trojan Horse, though, to be clear, that doesn’t make an appearance in the Iliad. But it wasn’t the fact that there were horses which caught my attention, it was the fact that no one rode those horses, the horses are used exclusively to pull chariots. On some level I may have already known this, but it was only on this recent read-through that I paused to consider the implications of this fact.

I’m no expert on the history of horses, but I did some digging and this is what I found. While horses were domesticated no later than 2000 BC and probably as early as 3500 BC, the earliest evidence for them being ridden in warfare is from around 850 or so BC. (The Trojan War, or at least the event that we think of as the Trojan War is generally considered to have happened around the 11th or 12th century BC.) And evidence that horses were ridden even outside of warfare before then is suggestive, but mostly inconclusive. I find this interesting for a whole host of reasons, but primarily for what it says about how long it can take for the full utility of a new technology to become apparent, even in the realm of war, where it’s a matter of life and death.

Those that have spent any time studying the Mongols (and if you haven’t I could not recommend the Hardcore History series on the Mongols enough) will know that before the harnessing of gunpowder the ultimate military unit was the mounted archer, particularly once the stirrup was invented. And yet by the time the Mongols used them to such devastating effect, horses had been domesticated for thousands of years. Bows which could be used from horseback had existed for almost as long, and while stirrups were a recent invention there is nothing about their construction which kept them from being invented much, much earlier. So why did it take so long? And is there anything which is currently just sitting around waiting for a slight improvement before it entirely changes the world?

As for the first question, while riding horses is baked into our psyche now, I’m sure that the first time someone suggested getting on the back of something alive, which could buck you off without any warning, seemed pretty crazy. Also if you’re mostly using horses to facilitate archery it would seem logical that a stable platform like the chariot, with a 360 degree field of fire was much better than trying to do the same thing from horseback. Also even something which seems obvious can take a long while to develop. The classic example of this is wheeled luggage.

I’m not sure when it would first have been useful to have wheeled luggage. You obviously want a reasonably flat surface that’s free of mud and horse crap. But once that’s in place, and perhaps even before then, you could imagine something like a traditional steamer trunks with wheels built into one corner being easily wheeled from place to place. But even if flat surfaces were uncommon and horse crap all too common, it certainly would have come in handy by the time of World War II, and particularly in the immediate aftermath as commercial air travel took off. And yet the first time someone actually put wheels on luggage was 1972 or, as has been frequently pointed out, after we landed on the Moon. Further, this was not the wheeled luggage most of us are familiar with this was the typical old style suitcase with a strap you could pull, and which tipped over all the time. The rollaboard style didn’t come along until 1991! This is despite all the necessary technology existing for decades before hand.

There are certainly other examples of this sort of thing, but you can see that even over very long periods (centuries in the case of horses, decades in the case of wheeled luggage) obviously innovative improvements can elude us. And it doesn’t seem to be important that it’s a matter of life or death (horses) or if it’s something that millions of people could notice (luggage). It can still be overlooked for a disconcertingly long time.

To return to my two questions, I’m not sure why certain innovations take so long, there are obviously lots of potential theories, but the fact is that they do. And as far as the second, if I knew of a slight improvement that would change the world I should be out there raising capital rather than writing this blog. That said I do have what I think is a good (or perhaps awful) candidate, though unfortunately it’s not the kind of thing you raise money for. That candidate is… nuclear weapons.

I’ve blogged before about nuclear weapons, and they’re definitely something I frequently worry about, but a combination of my observation about the Iliad and a recent Bloomberg article by Tyler Cowen brought the subject back to the top of my list. Combining all three of these sources together we come up with the following list of reasons why I think nuclear weapons should still be humanities number one concern (which is Cowen’s position as well.)

1- Just as it took a long time to figure out the “killer app” (literally) for horses, it could be that we haven’t yet figured out the most effective way to use nukes. For example, I personally think there are probably methods of just threatening to use nukes that could be horribly effective in the hands of an aggressive nation. (Look how far Hitler got on nothing but aggression and confidence with nations who had no appetite for violence.)

2- If it potentially takes many man hours before a novel way of doing things is uncovered, as in the case with luggage, we don’t actually have all that many “nuke man hours”, however you choose to define that term. This is good in general, but may be bad if it leads us to believe we’ve ruled out or accounted for all of the possible scenarios for nuclear weapons to be used.

3- Cowen points out that every era has their recency bias. In the immediate aftermath of World War II and during the Cold War people were very worried about war because we had just one. Now that we’re experiencing the Long Peace, people don’t worry about that anymore. Now they worry about banks failing because of bad mortgages. And in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 we worried about terrorism. In each of those cases our worries were based more on what sprang to mind than on what the true probabilities were.

4- Following from the above Cowen goes after Steven Pinker, and makes an argument I’ve also made. Those who paint a rosy picture of a future without nuclear war have to be right every single year, while those who worry about it only have to be right once for all their worry to be justified and for all the optimism to seem fantastically naive. Or as Cowen says it:

Yes, the arguments for optimism often appear stronger than the arguments for pessimism, and indeed they are. When it comes to nuclear weapons, however, the arguments for pessimism only have to be true once — and that is likely to happen sooner or later, no matter how positive the general trends

5- Cowen’s final point is that, as with all technology, nukes are becoming “easier and cheaper to build” and beyond that other improvements are being worked on, like hypersonic delivery systems. These are also things I’ve talked about before but it sounds more impressive coming from Cowen.

6- Related to the above, ICBMs, particularly solid fuel MIRVs (Multiple Independently targetable Reentry Vehicles) are basically impossible to defend against, and if there is any wiggle room, hypersonic missiles will definitely get rid of it. Absent the ability to mount a successful defense we can only deter through the promise of retaliation, but that means we need to be willing to retaliate, and that we can’t make any mistakes in this area, which if history is any indication is harder than you think.

7- Additionally, as nukes become easier and cheaper to build more countries are likely to acquire them, which means that the bipolar game of deterrence which got us through the Cold War is going to increasingly become a much more difficult multipolar game. And this doesn’t even take terrorist nukes into account, which is an entirely separate massive threat.

8- Despite all of the above, people appear to have stopped worrying about nuclear weapons or nuclear war. In every way that matters nuclear weapons are at least as dangerous as they have always been, and in many ways much more dangerous. But the amount of attention and worry they attract is lower than at any point since their invention. Consequently, vigilance is much lower than in the past, and there’s much less effort being put towards related diplomacy, treaties and other activism.

I think, as always, the key problem is the people have a very narrow time horizon. Is there going to be a nuclear war in 2019? I’m 99% sure there won’t be. But it’s not just a question of 2019, or 2020, or 2025. Nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented. They’re not a danger for the rest of the decade, or the rest of the century, they’re a danger for the rest of forever.


The Iliad goes into a surprising amount of detail when describing death. On the other hand, I have assiduously avoided describing someone getting “struck in the chest near the nipple, and the point fixed itself in his lungs”. If you appreciate that, consider donating.