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One of my favorite blogs is Slatestarcodex, the blog of Scott Alexander. And yes I would offer the obligatory “check it out if you haven’t already.”
As an example of the high esteem I have for his blog I’ve started at the very beginning and I’m reading all the archives, and one of his earliest posts has some bearing on the topic we were discussing in my last post, but is also interesting enough on it’s own account to be worth reviewing. So I’ll start with that and then tie it back to my post. His post is titled A Thrive/Survive Theory of The Political Spectrum, and in it he puts forth his own theory of how to explain the right/left, conservative/liberal divide:
…rightism is what happens when you’re optimizing for surviving an unsafe environment, leftism is what happens when you’re optimized for thriving in a safe environment.
As an example of the rightist/survival mindset he offers the example of a zombie apocalypse. Imagining how you might react to a zombie apocalypse, he feels, is a great way to arrive at most of the things supported by the right/survive side of the political equation. You’d want lots of guns, you’d be very suspicious of outsiders, you’d become very religious (if there are no atheists in foxholes there are definitely no atheists in foxholes surrounded by zombies) extreme black and white thinking would dominate (zombies are not misunderstood, they’re evil), etc.
For the leftist/thrive side of the spectrum he offers the example of a future technological utopia:
Robotic factories produce far more wealth than anyone could possibly need. The laws of Nature have been altered to make crime and violence physically impossible (although this technology occasionally suffers glitches). Infinitely loving nurture-bots take over any portions of child-rearing that the parents find boring. And all traumatic events can be wiped from people’s minds, restoring them to a state of bliss. Even death itself has disappeared.
As you can imagine you’d probably get the exact opposite of the previous scenario. Guns would be nearly non-existent. If you don’t have to compete for resources and violence has been eliminated most of the current objections to foreigners would be gone. Also, based on current trends in the developed world, it seems unlikely that religion would have much of a foothold, nurture bots would make marriage vestigial, etc.
I find his theory very compelling, it makes as much sense as any of the theories I’ve come across, and I have no problem granting that it’s probably accurate. Which leads us to an examination of the implications of the theory, and this is where I think it gets really interesting.
The first thing to consider is which view of the future is more likely to be accurate. Is it going to be closer to the technological utopia or the zombie apocalypse? I think my own views on this subject are pretty clear. (Though as I mentioned way back in the first post I think we’re more likely to see a gradual catabolic collapse than a Mad Max/Walking Dead scenario.) But I’m also on record as saying that I could very well be wrong. Given that we can’t predict the future, what’s more important is not to try and guess what will happen, to say nothing of trying to plan around those guesses, but rather to choose the course where the penalty for being wrong is the smallest.
In other words if the world prepares for disaster and instead we end up with robotic factories that produce everything we could possible need, then it’s fine, and yes we wasted some time and resources preparing for disaster, but in light of the eventual abundance it was a small price to pay. But if the world pins its hopes on robotic factories and we end up with roving zombies then people die, which I understand is much worse than wasting time and money.
Of course one might immediately make the argument that by preparing for disaster we could slow down or actually prevent the technological utopia. Obviously that argument is not easy to dismiss, particularly since, generally, planning for A makes it harder to accomplish B. This is especially true if B is the opposite of A. Thus, on its face that argument would appear to be compelling. But let’s look at how things are actually playing out.
If we want robotic factories then we need to spend resources inventing them. More generally, the best way to guarantee the technological utopia is to put as many resources as we can into innovation. So how are our resources allocated? According to this chart 41% of US GDP goes to the government, not the first place you think of when the word innovation comes to mind. But it’s still possible that some innovation might emerge, but if it does it will most likely come from military spending, the area leftists would most like to cut. I would argue that innovation is least likely to come from entitlement spending the area leftists are most desirous to expand. In other words, at first glance the people planning on the utopian future may, paradoxically, be the people least likely to bring it about.
Of course there’s still the remaining 59% of the economy. It’s certainly conceivable that leftists could be so much better at encouraging innovation in that area of the economy that it makes up for whatever distortions they bring to the percent of GDP consumed by the government. On this count I see evidence going both ways. I think the generally laissez-faire attitude of the rightist is much better for encouraging innovation. On the other hand the hub of modern innovation is San Francisco, a notoriously leftist city. On the gripping hand you have things like Uber not being able to operate in SF because of regulations. Personally I would again say that rightist are better at encouraging innovation then leftists. Best case scenario I have a hard time seeing it as anything other than a wash. Also as our affluence increases the percentage of GDP that goes to government also increases, which takes us back to the first argument.
Remember in the end, we don’t even need to show that rightest are better at innovation, just that their focus on survival doesn’t fatally injure the prospects of the technological utopia, which I don’t see any compelling evidence for.
Having progressed this far, we have the survive/rightist side of the aisle being great as a just-in-case measure, which doesn’t slow down the thrive/leftist side and may actually speed it up. In fact at this point you may think that Alexander obviously created the post as a defense of rightism, and many of the commenters on his blog felt the same way, but that was not the case. Here’s his response
…this post was not intended to sell Reaction [rightism/survive]. If anything, it was about how it was adapted for conditions that no longer exist. If you’re in a stable society without zombies, optimizing your life for zombie defense is a waste of time; working towards not-immediately-survival-related but nice and beautiful and enjoyable things like the environment and equality and knowledge-for-knowledge’s sake may be an excellent choice.
Does he have a point? Is the survive mindset a relic of the past which now just represents a waste of time and resources? This is where we return to my last post. If you haven’t read it here’s the 30 second summary. Some smart concerned people wanted poor countries to use opiates like morphine to ease the pain of the dying. They refused. Instead it was all the rich countries who started using opiates leading to the deaths of an additional 100,000 people, just in the US, from prescription opiate overdoses.
This is a great example of the thrive/survive dichotomy. In typical survive fashion the poor countries were not worried about easing the pain of people who were effectively already dead. Rather, they were a lot more worried about addiction and overdosing among the young, healthy population. Whereas in typical thrive we-shouldn’t-have-to-worry-about-anything fashion, the rich world prescribed opiates like candy. In our post scarcity world why should anyone have to worry about pain? But as it turned out despite living in what is arguably already a technological utopia (I mean have you seen this thing called the internet?!?) heroin is still really addictive. And using technology to switch a few molecules around and slap a time release coating on it (and call it oxycontin) didn’t make as much of a difference as people hoped.
This should certainly not be taken as sufficient evidence to say that “survive” is superior (though I think that’s where we’re headed) but it should at least serve as sufficient evidence to refute the idea that the conditions where the survive mindset is beneficial “no longer exist.”
So we have 100.000 people, at least, who wish the needle had been a little bit more on the survive end of dial and a little bit less on the thrive side of dial. With a number like that one starts to wonder why we even have people who are optimized for thrive. Well, just like everything, it goes back to evolution. Of course anytime you start putting forth an evolutionary explanation for things you’re in danger of constructing a just-so story. Though this particular theory does have some evidence behind it. Here Alexander and I are once again largely in agreement so I’ll pass it back to him:
Developmental psychology has gradually been moving towards a paradigm where our biology actively seeks out information about our environment and then toggles between different modes based on what it finds. Probably the most talked-about example of this paradigm is the thrifty phenotype idea, devised to explain the observation that children starved in the womb will grow up to become obese
Coincidently I came across another example of this just the other day. My research began when I came across an article that indicated that Dawkin’s theory of the Selfish Gene had fallen out of favor and I wanted to know why. As it turns out this paradigm of phenotypical toggling was a big reason. The example given by this article dealing with the problems of the Selfish Gene concerned grasshoppers and locusts. What people didn’t realize until very recently is that grasshoppers and locusts are the same species, but grasshoppers turn into locusts when a switch is flipped by environmental cues. Continuing with Alexander:
It seems broadly plausible that there could be one of these switches for something like “social stability”. If the brain finds itself in a stable environment where everything is abundant, it sort of lowers the mental threat level and concludes that everything will always be okay and it’s job is to enjoy itself and win signaling games. If it finds itself in an environment of scarcity, it will raise the mental threat level and set its job to “survive at any cost”.
In other words humans switch to thrive when things are going well because it works better, and when things aren’t going well they switch to survive because that works better. Of course the immediate question is, what does it mean for something to “work better”. Since we’re talking about evolution, working better means reproductive success, or having more offspring. The fact that the people most associated with the thrive side of things have the least children is something that seems like a big flashing neon sign, which makes me want to switch to a completely separate topic, but I’m going to resist it.
Also if we’re talking in terms of an evolutionary response the thrive side of things has to have been a potential strategy for a long, long time. It can’t have been something that developed in the last 100 years, or even the last 500 years. We’re talking about something that’s been around for probably tens of thousands of years. Thus, any theory about it’s benefits would have to encompass a pre-historical reason for the thrive switch to exist.
As I warned earlier. discussions like this are apt to look like just so stories, so if even the hint of ad hoc reasoning bothers you, you should skip the next 5 paragraphs.
Obviously one category of people who might benefit from the thrive switch would be whoever ends up being in the ruling class. You might think that’s too small a category to deserve it’s own evolutionary switch, but I direct your attention to the fact that 1 in every 200 men are descendants of Genghis Khan, and the related finding that there were more mothers than fathers in the past indicating strong polygyny, almost certainly concentrated in the ruling class. What this implies is that even if something is only triggered a small amount of the time, it could have a disproportionate evolutionary effect. Sure, you might only be on the top of the heap a short time, perhaps only a few generations, but a switch to take advantage of that could have an enormous long term effect.
If we’re willing to grant that the thrive switch was largely designed to take advantage of your time on top, and we’re willing to see where speculation might take us (you were warned) it generates some interesting ideas.
First it definitely explains the promiscuity. It explains the hedonism. It explains the enormous focus on jockeying for status and signalling games. But so far I haven’t departed that much from Alexander’s position. What if I told you it explains microaggressions?
The concept of microaggressions has been much discussed over the last few years. Most people view it as a new and disturbing trend. But microaggressions have been around forever, however up until now they were restricted to royalty. In dealing with royalty you have to be careful not to give the slightest hint of offense, to use exactly the right words when addressing them. Can anyone look at this chart explaining the proper form of address for royalty and tell me it’s not the most elaborate system ever for avoiding microaggressions? Is the rising objection to microaggressions an unavoidable consequence of the increasing dominance of the thrive paradigm?
Okay perhaps that’s a stretch, speculation and just-so-story time over we’ll return to firmer ground.
Much of what we understand about the kind of evolutionary switching we’re talking about comes from game theory. And of course the classic example of game theory is prisoner’s dilemma. Iterated prisoner’s dilemma is often used as a proxy for group dynamics and evolution. In this case the strategy that works best is a tit-for tat strategy, but game theory also tells us that occasionally, particularly in the short term, it can be advantageous to defect. Could the thrive switch be just this? That when the rewards for defecting reach a certain level, the switch flips and the individual defects? The exact nature of the defection (and the abandoned co-operation) are not entirely clear to me, but we are still talking about a certain payoff leading to a switch in strategy. And you don’t have to be a hard core libertarian to think that the baron in his castle has a more predatory relationship with the peasant than the peasant has with another peasant.
I admit that I am once again speculating to a large degree. But this speculation proceeds from some reasonable assumptions. Assumption one: the thrive switch works in conjunction with the the survive switch. That there’s a reason grasshoppers aren’t locusts 100% of the time. Assumption two: this symbiotic relationship has not gone away (see the previous point about opiates.) Assumption three: There are unseen reasons for the historical equilibrium between the two modes. In other words, one could certainly imagine that the thrive strategy relies on having a certain level of surrounding survive. That evolutionarily speaking a society that’s 20% thrive and 80% survive works great, but a society in which those numbers are reversed, works horribly, or is in any case much more fragile than the society which is only 20% thrive.
How might we test this? What would count as evidence for an imbalance between the strive and thrive portions of society? What would count as evidence of the imbalance being dangerous? I can think of few things:
-College: This area could provide a blog post or three all on it’s own. As Alexander says if you’re in thrive mode then pursuing “knowledge-for-knowledge’s sake may be an excellent choice.” But there’s definitely a strong case to be made that we’ve reached a point where too many people go to college. And even if you agree with the general benefit of college and want it spread as widely as possibly, you can still probably agree that too many people take on too much debt to get degrees in fields with very little economic benefit. If that’s not evidence of a thrive imbalance than I think you have to invalidate the entire construct.
-Debt: I’m reminded of an exchange in Anna Karenina when one of the main characters complains of being in debt. The noble’s he’s with asks how much and he responds with the amount of twenty thousand roubles, and they all laugh at him because it’s so small. One of the nobles is five million roubles in debt on a salary of twenty thousand a year. This to me encapsulates the idea that debt is something that was traditionally only available to the wealthy. But today we have a staggering amount of debt at all levels. I was just reading in The Economist that the unfunded pension liability in 20 OECD countries is $78 trillion dollars. That’s an amount that takes a minute to sink in, but for help $78 trillion is about the world’s GDP for an entire year. Now maybe Krugman and Yglesias and Keynes are all correct and government debt (even $78 trillion of it) is no big deal, but what about consumer debt, and student debt, and corporate debt. Is it all no big deal?
-Virtue Signalling: I mentioned signalling games earlier, and you may still be unclear on what those actually are. Well as Alexander explains:
When people are no longer constrained by reality, they spend most of their energy in signaling games. This is why rich people build ever-bigger yachts and fret over the parties they throw and who got invited where. It’s why heirs and heiresses so often become patrons of the art, or donors to major charities. Once you’ve got enough money, the next thing you need is status, and signaling is the way to get it.
So the people of this final utopia will be obsessed with looking good. They will become moralists, and try to prove themselves more virtuous than their neighbors.
In a virtue signalling arms race it becomes harder and harder to establish that you are truly the most virtuous, and as a result virtue get’s sliced into smaller and smaller parts. If three genders (male, female and other) is virtuous, surely seven is more virtuous, thirty-one still more virtuous and fifty-one the most virtuous of all (until someone comes along with their list of sixty-three or, not to be outdone, seventy-one.) Is this evidence of a thrive/survive imbalance? It sure looks like one, and of course, this is also just one example. Is it evidence of the imbalance being dangerous? That I’m less sure about, I guess it depends on how far the arms race goes. I have a hard time imagining that will eventually reach the point where murdering the transphobic is considered more virtuous than yelling at them, but honestly I never imagined we’d get as far as we have already.
Whether you accept these three points as evidence of a dangerous imbalance will largely depend on how closely your own biases and prejudices match mine. I’m certainly not the only one who thinks that worthless college degrees, massive debt, and the virtue arms race are problems. I just may be the only one who has tried to tie them to a single cause.
Since this is technically an LDS blog (though I’ve hid it very well the last couple of posts) you might constructively wonder what the Church’s stance on things is. And while the Church would strenuously object to an accusation that everyone in the Church is a Republican (particularly in light of the current candidate) and would probably also object (albeit perhaps less strenuously) over being labeled a Right-wing organization. With their emphasis on food storage, avoiding debt, chastity and family would they or anyone else object to them being labeled a “survive” organization