Month: June 2019

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:

Or download the MP3


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

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


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

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


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

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


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)

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


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.