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We covered the fragility of systems and technology in the last newsletter. In this newsletter I’d like to move from the material to the ephemeral. In other words, let’s talk about culture. This is a huge topic for a short newsletter, so while much of what I say can be applied to traditional culture in general, I want to focus on traditional taboos. The older and stronger and more widespread the taboo, the better.
You might imagine that since taboos are also human creations that they would suffer from the same fragility I described in my last newsletter. But there is a difference between systems which were invented and systems which have evolved. The process of evolution separates the antifragile from the fragile.
Antifragile things are made stronger by disorder, chaos and other shocks (up to a point). Fragile things are made weaker. Invented things, by nature of their novelty have not been subjected to ongoing shocks or chaos, while evolved things have undergone that evolution in the presence of and in response to such shocks and chaos.
All of this is to say that for something to become a taboo, it must have survived. It must not have broken. Which means, it’s antifragile. More specifically it made the culture as a whole antifragile.
At this point some of you are saying, “Yeah, yeah. Chesterton’s Fence. I get it.” But I would argue that this is a stronger argument than the one Chesterton was making. Chesterton pointed out that you shouldn’t remove a fence unless you understood the reason it was constructed. But this assumed that if you put in some effort, you could uncover that reason. Probably just by asking around. The fence is an invention, and it’s assumed you could find the reason for its invention.
Evolutions leave fewer clues, but despite that they end up being even more important. You might be familiar with the famous example of how the preparation of manioc evolved in order to eliminate the cyanide. The indigenous people who undertook such preparations had no idea what cyanide was, nor would the connection between chronic cyanide poisoning and the processes of manioc preparation have been easy to discern. Now that we can test for cyanide the reason for the extensive preparations is obvious. But just because we can uncover the underlying reason for one taboo, doesn’t mean we can uncover the underlying reason for all taboos.
To take an example that’s closer to home, let’s consider the longstanding and very widespread taboo against premarital sex. (Consider for a moment: Why should China and the West, historically so different in most other respects, have this exact same taboo?)
Adherence to this taboo has plummeted since the sexual revolution, and to the extent people think about why it existed in the first place they imagine that sex produces children who need to be cared for, but now that we have numerous methods of birth control we can dispense with it. They might admit that there used to be a reason for the taboo, but that technology has solved the problem—that our inventions have eliminated the need for our evolutions.
I think this is sheer hubris, and I’m not alone. In her recent book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, Louise Perry makes the case that the taboo solved numerous other problems like preventing sexual violence, which we’re only now grappling with. That “hook-up culture is a terrible deal for women”.
But does this mean that all traditional taboos are antifragile evolutions that should be maintained absent ironclad evidence to the contrary? And what about traditional culture more broadly?
I’m arguing that in both cases this should be the default. That we should be very careful anytime we think we’ve invented our way out of a problem previously solved by cultural evolution. And in particular we should never imagine that our ancestors were silly and superstitious and had no reason for a taboo. And yet both things are far too common. In so many areas we’ve abandoned thousands of years of wisdom because it seemed unnecessary, archaic, or just inconvenient.
This has been and will continue to be a mistake.
Some might dismiss me as an old man yelling at the clouds, but if old men have been yelling at clouds for thousands of years, I’m asking you to assume that there’s a good reason for it.
I’m always on the lookout for good band names and this newsletter had a surprising number: Material to Ephemeral, Evolved Taboos, Sheer Hubris, and of course Old Men Yelling at Clouds. To those I’d like to add, Donations Encouraged.