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:
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:
- The duration of the tradition. –> Slavery was around for millenia
- The strength of enforcement for the tradition. –> Escaped slaves were punished by death.
- The frequency of the tradition among the various cultures. –> Slavery was very common
- 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:
- Is initiated randomly.
- Is tested in the crucible of genetic reproduction and survival.
- 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:
- Is initiated with some thought. “Hey, what if we tried this?”
- Is tested in the crucible of cultural and individual reproduction and survival
- 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:
- Entirely idea based, with a large potential space for generating those ideas.
- Ideas don’t need to provide any survival value for the humans which hold them. It’s all about idea propagation, and “mindshare”.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.