Category: Traditional Culture

Meditations on Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

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It may seem odd to spend an entire post on a book that was published 25 years ago, but after re-reading The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson recently I just can’t help myself, the book is just that good. Or, at least the first 99% of it is, I’ve always felt that the ending was too abrupt, and ultimately unsatisfying. Of course any discussion of how something ends means that there’s definitely going to be spoilers, but that’s another reason for talking about something published 25 years ago, the time limit on spoilers has long since expired. 

Diamond Age is set in a future where nanotechnology has revolutionized the world, nearly everyone has a matter compiler, and for those that don’t public matter compilers provide the necessities of life (food, blankets, etc.) for free to anyone who requests them.

In parallel with this development the world has been divided into globe spanning tribes, or phyles, as the book refers to them. Phyles are groups of people sharing a tighter cultural bond than individuals in a modern nation state (though perhaps not a historical nation state?) while being more geographically dispersed. (All cites contain multiple phyle enclaves.) Phyles include groups like Mormons, communists (the Senderos), secret cryptographically oriented phyles (this is Stephenson after all) and finally there are the three great phyles:

The Han (consisting of Han Chinese), the Neo-Victorian New Atlantis phyle (consisting largely of Anglo-Saxons, but also accepting Indians, Africans and other members of the Anglosphere who identify with the culture) and Nippon (consisting of the Japanese). The novel raises the question as to whether Hindustan is a fourth Great Phyle, or a “riotously diverse collection of microtribes sintered together according to some formula we don’t get.” (h/t: Wikipedia)

It should also be noted that not everyone belongs to a phyle, and those who don’t are second class citizens. 

As you might imagine, given how phyles are constructed, culture plays a very large role in the world of Diamond Age, and discussing how Stephenson treats the various cultures, but particularly the Neo-Victorians (or Vickys as they’re often called) is how I’m going to be spending most of my time. 

If you read my book review round up from a couple of weeks ago you’ll remember that I included a quote from Diamond Age on the subject of hypocrisy. The character who was offering his opinion on how hypocrisy had been elevated to “the mother of all vices” was Lord Finkle-Mcgraw, a member of the Neo-Victorian phyle, and in most respects the main driver of events in the novel (though not the main character). As I mentioned the Vickys were one of the “great phyles” and this phyle took the form of a weird corporate oligarchy that owed its allegiance to the British monarchy. Finkle-Mcgraw is an equity lord, meaning that he had a share in the profits of the phyle. This whole construct seems like the kind of thing that would be completely unworkable in reality, but in the book, the Vickys are portrayed as being the phyle you definitely want to be in. 

Stephenson’s portrayal of the Neo-Victorians, is definitely what struck me the most on my first read through of Diamond Age, however many years ago. In particular this idea that the tribe holding to traditional values and historical norms would end up being clearly the best tribe. This was in stark contrast to most of the science fiction I had read before, or since in which traditional values either don’t make an appearance or are brought on the stage solely for the purpose of demonstrating how much better future values are, and if the author can throw in some mockery of traditional values, so much the better. But in Diamond Age these values were not only present, they provided a competitive advantage! 

It’s tempting to take the next step and hold this up as a broader vindication of tradition, but I’m sure if I did people would hasten to point out that this is fiction, and there are no rules that because something happened in a novel that the chances of it happening in reality are thereby increased. Still, if they’re going to be engaging, the best novels have to reflect at least some reality, and I think that’s precisely what Stephenson has done. 

Speaking of reality, and as something of a tangent, one question that occurs after reading Diamond Age, and other Stephenson novels, is where do his political sympathies lie? After his latest novel, Fall (which I reviewed here) featured a whole subplot about internet extremism among (very) fundamental Christians I saw several people asserting that he was obviously very liberal, and if not, then at least very disgusted with Trump. That may be so, but I find it hard to believe that someone could write so eloquently on the subject of traditional norms and customs without having some recognition of their power.

Also to tie it back into the discussion here’s what Finkle-McGraw thinks about culture. 

[He] began to develop an opinion that was to shape his political views in later years, namely, that while people were not genetically different, they were culturally as different as they could possibly be, and that some cultures were simply better than others. This was not a subjective value judgement, merely an observation that some cultures thrived and expanded while others failed. It was a view implicitly shared by nearly everyone but, in those days, never voiced.

I’ll leave it to you to decide how much overlap Finkle-McGraw’s view of culture has with Stephenson’s. Also it should be noted that when he’s speaking of “those days” he’s basically talking about our own time (or at least the 1990’s when the book was written). It would be hard to read that section without immediately following it up with the question of what, exactly, makes one culture better than another? And by making the Vickys the most enviable phyle, Stephenson appears to answer that at least part of it is due to their embrace of traditional norms and customs. 

In the novel (and in reality?) it’s because of the unity such an embrace provides. A unity that is greater because membership in a phyle is clearly something people have to work for. Not something which happens automatically as an accident of birth (though clearly that has some influence). This makes the phyles of Diamond Age much closer to religions than would be typical for a modern nation. Though as Samual Huntington argues in his work on civilizations you can’t have a civilization without a religion, and that historically the two have been tied together much more closely than they are now. Beyond the specific appeal of the Neo-Victorians, I also find the idea of nations with much tighter ideological bonds very appealing, particularly these days. (And it strongly resembles the proposal of an ideological archipelago proposed by Scott Alexander.)

As you might imagine unity is not the only thing the Vickys have going for them. They’ve combined this unity with immense scientific and engineering prowess as well. It should be obvious that this is a powerful combination, but Stephenson doesn’t handwave it into existence, rather he makes the difficulty of maintaining both of these qualities at the same time one of the central themes of the book, going so far as to have one character, the delightful Miss Matheson, point out that, “It is the hardest thing in the world to make educated Westerners pull together…” (A point I also made in a previous post.) If this is the case how is it done? I’ll allow Miss Matheson to once again provide the answer:

It is upon moral qualities that a society is ultimately founded. All the prosperity and technological sophistication in the world is of no use without that foundation—we learned this in the late twentieth century, when it became unfashionable to teach these things. 

I can imagine many people disagreeing with this statement, particularly coming from the mouth of a fictional character, in a book written 25 years, ago, but if so perhaps you will find less to object to in another statement from Miss Matheson:

Some cultures are prosperous; some are not. Some value rational discourse and the scientific method; some do not. Some encourage freedom of expression, and some discourage it. The only thing they have in common is that if they do not propagate, they will be swallowed up by others. All they have built up will be torn down; all they have accomplished will be forgotten; all that they have learned and written will be scattered to the wind. In the old days it was easy to remember this because of the constant necessity of border defence. Nowadays, it is all too easily forgotten.

If you disagree with a foundation of morality I hope you can at least be persuaded that most people would like to preserve what they have built and the things that they have learned. Certainly binding together into a culture is one way of trying to ensure that, but how do you then go on to preserve the subsequent cultural repository? If you’re the Vicky’s how do you maintain unity and technological progress? And more broadly how do you maintain anything at all?

A large part of the problem comes from the fact that the people creating the culture are different from the people living within the culture. It’s made clear in the book that many of the most ardent Neo-Victorians embraced the phyle as a rescue or a correction (or a reaction?) to the licentiousness that surrounded them when they were growing up. But having rejected promiscuity, the last thing they’re going to do is expose their children to it, meaning that people born into the culture won’t have the opportunity to replicate the conditions which lead to the creation of the culture in the first place. The book is initially driven by Finkle-McGraw’s attempt to overcome that problem. Which he does by engaging a young engineer, named Hackworth. Despite its length their initial conversation is worth repeating:

Finkle-McGraw: Tell me, were your parents subjects, or did you take the Oath?

Hackworth: As soon as I turned twenty-one, sir. Her Majesty—at that time, actually, she was still Her Royal Highness—was touring North America, prior to her enrollment at Stanford, and I took the Oath at Trinity Church in Boston.

Finkle-McGraw: Why?

Hackworth: I knew two kinds of discipline as a child: none at all, and too much. The former leads to degenerate behavior… My life was [also] not without periods of excessive, unreasoning discipline, usually imposed capriciously by those responsible for the laxity in the first place. That combined with my historical studies led me, as many others, to the conclusion that there was little in the previous century worthy of emulation, and that we must look to the nineteenth century instead for stable social models.”

Finkle-McGraw: Well done, Hackworth! But you must know that the model to which you allude did not long survive the first Victoria.

Hackworth: We have outgrown much of the ignorance and resolved many of the internal contradictions that characterised that era.

Finkle-McGraw: Have we then? How reassuring. And have we resolved them in a way that all of those children down there live interesting lives?

Finkle-McGraw somewhat euphemistically uses the term “interesting” as a catch-all for the many things which drove him and Hackworth to be Neo-Victorians, and which create success and character in general. But regardless of the culture or in the case of the book, the phyle, maintaining the culture that got you to where you are is a constant problem and nowhere more so than right now.

These days, there are many people who view progress as something of an unstoppable force, or at least an inevitability, and if that’s the case then nothing I say will matter in the slightest. And it would be nice if this were so, but I would hope that something like the coronavirus at least engenders some doubt that things will be quite so smooth. If lines at Costco and the price of gold are any indication it certainly appears that way. (If you’re interested in my take on things, I’m not sure I have much to add, but I’m sure it will form the subject for my personal life section when I do the next book review post.)

As I have repeatedly indicated I am not so sanguine about the future. I think that getting to where we are was a massive effort that built on centuries of trial and error, and yes also a significant amount of morality. That we seem to be abandoning many of the things which got us here without really considering whether they might have been important (i.e. Chesterton’s Fence). That not only are we not making life “interesting” for our kids but that many of us are declining to have kids at all. 

Ultimately as Miss Matheson says, it’s a question of survival and propagation. We’ve reached a point where there are no barbarians at the gate and where the idea that there might ever be barbarians is scoffed at. And maybe there won’t be, maybe the barbarians are all gone, and no effort is required to keep civilization going or make the lives of children interesting. But even in the absence of barbarians, I feel positive that some effort is nevertheless required to maintain civilization. That in the end certain traditional standards, standards which got us to where we are will also end up being critical to keeping us where we are.


Somewhat unconnected to the topic, while I was writing this I experienced my first earthquake (magnitude 5.7). I try to neither overreact or underreact, but I’ll tell from an eschatological perspective having an earthquake in the middle of a plague is a bad omen. If you were thinking of donating, then this might be the time to do it, after all you never know when the world might end.


Churchills, Hitlers, and Hedonists

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I.

In August of 1941, near the beginning of World War II, before the US had even entered the war and during one of its bleakest periods, George Orwell penned an essay. This was an essay written in response to some things being said by another famous author, H.G. Wells:

Hitler is a criminal lunatic, and [yet] Hitler has an army of millions of men, aeroplanes in thousands, tanks in tens of thousands. For his sake a great nation has been willing to overwork itself for six years and then to fight for two years more, whereas for the common-sense, essentially hedonistic world-view which Mr. Wells puts forward, hardly a human creature is willing to shed a pint of blood…What has kept England on its feet during the past year? In part, no doubt, some vague idea about a better future, but chiefly the atavistic emotion of patriotism, the ingrained feeling of the English-speaking peoples that they are superior to foreigners. For the last twenty years the main object of English left-wing intellectuals has been to break this feeling down, and if they had succeeded, we might be watching the SS men patrolling the London streets at this moment. Similarly, why are the Russians fighting like tigers against the German invasion? In part, perhaps, for some half-remembered ideal of Utopian Socialism, but chiefly in defence of Holy Russia (the “sacred soil of the Fatherland”, etc etc), which Stalin has revived in an only slightly altered form. The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions–racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war–which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action.

(h/t: Bruce G. Charlton)

Wells was a science fiction writer who spent his days imagining a better or at least a different future, and Hitler and the Nazi’s represented neither. Instead they were depressingly primitive and retrograde. Because of this Wells imagines that the German war machine is going to fizzle out any minute now. Orwell strenuously disagrees. In hindsight, we can see that Wells was not merely mistaken, but very mistaken. 

In this day and age, people like Wells still exist, and though they are no longer so quick to underestimate the appeal of powerful national emotions, or suffer from any difficulty imagining another Hitler (in fact if anything they may be too quick to apply that label to their ideological opponents) they still underestimate the power of those emotions and the dangers of abandoning them. Because I would submit that Orwell was correct about those who’ve settled into an “essentially hedonistic worldview” I think they would “hardly [be] willing to shed a pint of blood” or make many other sacrifices either, in defense of their ideology. 

Recall, it wasn’t just Hitler and the Nazis harnessing those emotions, as Orwell points out nationalist fervor and patriotism was just as necessary to the British and the Russians in beating off the Nazis as it was to the Nazis in the first place. The two went somewhat hand in hand. So what’s the situation now? There seems to be four possibilities:

  1. Nothing has changed. Hitler’s are still possible and if someone like him arose again, and stoked the patriotic fervor of a nation then, in response, we would see the same nationalistic unity among his opponents. That it is still possible for there to be all out war.
  2. Hitlers are possible, but the will to oppose them is not. For example perhaps you could imagine Putin or Xi Jinping mobilizing their country in the same way Hitler did, but you can’t imagine a Churchill ever again arising in Europe or the US.
  3. The reverse of the previous option. Churchills are possible, but Hitlers aren’t. 
  4. We have progressed to the point where Hitlers are no longer possible, but neither is the sort of patriotic sacrifice we saw on the other side either. That these days Churchills are just as impossible as Hitlers. Nowhere in the world will any nation ever again summon the massive and coordinated effort we saw during the World Wars. 

Let’s take those possibilities in order. As the option with the best prima facie backing the first option has to be assigned some likelihood. In other words, unless you have good reasons to believe that something has changed it’s best to assume that it hasn’t. Of course, this wouldn’t be good news. The idea that we might once again see the great powers engaged in total war, only this time with the additional excitement of nuclear weapons, should terrify anyone. But perhaps there are good reasons to believe that something has changed. I think I, along with most people, have a hard time imagining a Hitler or a Churchill emerging out of the modern West. For all his strange popularity among a certain segment of the population, Trump is no Hitler, and finding a Churchill analogy is even harder. Which is not to say that it couldn’t happen, though if it does, it would seem more likely that these individuals would unify only a segment of a particular nation. Currently there seems to be very little evidence that anyone could unite an entire western nation as Hitler and Churchill once did. 

Which takes us to the possibility that Hitlers are possible but Churchills aren’t. This seems the most awful possibility of all, and unfortunately not all that difficult to imagine. Certainly it’s not hard to construct a scenario, where 30 years from now a confident China, united by some charismatic leader, faces off against a disunited and fragmented USA. One unable to pull together as a nation, even assuming that our system could produce someone we could unite around, which it can’t. Or to put it another way, it’s possible that the developed Western countries might be uniquely skilled at producing martially impotent hedonists, unwilling or unable to be roused by national pride, while the rest of the world still maintains that ability, or at least enough of it to come out on top in a fight. 

The third possibility, Churchills without Hitlers, seems the least likely of all. For one I have a strong suspicion that Churchills only arise in the presence of a Hitler. Certainly, if we abandon our use of them as shorthand for a moment and look to the actual individuals, Churchill never would have been chosen as prime minister without the threat of Hitler. And all the other Churchillian figures I can think also only came to the fore in response to a great crisis, even if that crisis lacked an opposing villain (think Lincoln and the Civil War). If a Churchill-esque figure were to arise independent of a crisis, and attempt to enforce their vision on an unwilling populace then I think that flips them into the Hitler column regardless of the initial purity of their motives. 

II.

The final possibility is perhaps the most interesting, but also the one with the greatest number of unknowns. To be clear there are certainly upsides to dispensing with the emotions of “racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, [and] love of war” but there are also downsides as well, and the question we have to confront is whether Orwell was right about the rest of his statement. Are these the emotions that provide the energy which actually shapes the world? And have we lost all power of action without them?

Before we proceed to answer these questions it’s important to take a deeper look at where things stand in the world at the moment. To begin with, I’m not familiar enough with Russian and Chinese attitudes to know if there’s enough nationalism still remaining in those countries for a Hitler style figure to emerge, though as I mentioned above, I think it would be foolish to rule out that possibility. But for a clear example of where these sorts of emotions are still present, we need merely turn to the Middle East, with the prime example being ISIS. (Which, it should be noted, is primarily a religious phenomenon.) And it’s worth spending some time on that, because clearly Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was a modern Hitler-esque figure. Which would seem to be strong evidence in favor of the argument that Hitlers are still possible (possibilities one and two).

The only saving grace in this instance was the vast disparity in technology between ISIS and its enemies, which allowed a strange pseudo-coalition of US backed Kurds, combined with Russian backed Syrians to eventually defeat them. But it’s worth pointing out that neither the US nor the Russians defeated them directly, they had to use “emotional” proxies like the Kurds and Assad supporting Syrians to actually eliminate ISIS as a nation with territory. This would also be the time to point out that the US has been unable to defeat the Taliban. Taken together these two conflicts would appear to provide strong evidence that the emotions Orwell mentioned are still important. And leading us to answer with a provisional “yes” to his first question: “Are these the emotions that provide the energy which actually shapes the world.” Well, at a minimum they have certainly shaped Afghanistan.

Looking at the world as a whole is interesting, but I think it’s instructive to look at just the US. When asked whether our nation still contains people with the sort of emotional energy found elsewhere most people might offer up the example of the ongoing protests against Trump. Or perhaps they might point out stories of street battles between Antifa and the Proud Boys or something similar. And while these may or may not be the sort of thing Orwell was talking about, they lack another characteristic which removes them from consideration even if they are. These individuals represent factions within a nation and not the nation itself. For Churchill to rally the English, it was not enough for him to rally only the football hooligans, or the Londoners, or even all the members of his own party he had to rally the nation as a whole. Now of course he didn’t have to rally every last individual citizen, but he (and Hitler) rallied enough people that the resources of the entire nation were bent towards a single goal. Looking at the factions currently roaming the streets, do you imagine any of them will ever have enough support to unite the entire nation? I don’t.

We should, at this point, consider the possibility that there are plenty of Hitlers, and perhaps even an equal number of Churchills but that the modern world is too fragmented for one of them to ever again rally an entire nation. The causes of this fragmentation have been amply examined elsewhere. (Indeed it seems the media can talk about little else.) And, for the purposes of this post, we’re not concerned with how we got here, but only with what we do now that we are. As to that, it seems obvious that we can have hundreds of mini-Churchills and Hitlers running around, but it doesn’t matter how much power they are able to bring to bear, because when speaking of a nation the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. The effectiveness of an entire nation is vastly greater than the effectiveness of any faction within that nation, even adjusted for size, and even if the various factions aren’t actively working against each other, which they generally are.

Does this therefore mean that the answer to Orwell’s second question is also yes? That in the absence of these unifying emotions that we have lost “all power of action”? As you’ll recall he mentioned two groups of people in his essay, those who were susceptible to nationalism and those who thought it a relic of the past. If the first group, those who are still given to emotion, are hopelessly divided, perhaps a new breed of rational individuals will step in and take their place. But of course, Orwell also claimed, speaking of this second group, “for the common-sense, essentially hedonistic world-view which Mr. Wells puts forward, hardly a human creature is willing to shed a pint of blood.” Is this claim true? I’m not sure how to test it, or what evidence to provide for its truthfulness, but perhaps if we consider one of the chief examples and advocates for this second group as an example, it will help give us a sense of things. For this purpose I’d like to consider Steven Pinker, who I admittedly pick on a lot, but he is also probably the foremost example of a public intellectual who rejects “racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, [and] love of war” while also embracing a “commonsense essentially hedonistic worldview.” 

Given our framework, the first question we might ask is whether Pinker is a Churchill. (Or, I suppose, a Hitler, though that’s not a term to be thrown around lightly.) If he were then the discussion would be over, but I think we can safely say that he is not, at least not in the classic sense of being the charismatic leader of a popular movement. You could make the argument that while he does not have broad popular appeal, that he has had some influence on the rich and powerful. Certainly Bill Gates appears to have been influenced by his ideas. And that’s not nothing to be sure, but we’re not asking if Pinker and people like him can have any influence, clearly they can, we’re asking whether they can take the place of a Churchill and unite a nation when a Hitler shows up with his millions of men and tens of thousands of tanks. And here Pinker’s prospects don’t seem very promising. 

For there to be any hope of someone like Pinker pulling off this sort of charismatic unification you would expect to see some indications of that power already. At least one or two political parties somewhere in the world of non-trivial size dedicated to him (not merely his ideology, remember we’re talking charismatic not ideological unification) or some nation where “Pinkerism” has already triumphed, and posters of the professor are displayed prominently. Unless I’m woefully misinformed, I don’t think any of that has happened. Frankly, it’d be a nice change of pace if bands of rabid Pinkernarians (Pinkertonians?) roamed the streets violently enforcing enlightenment ideals, but as far as I can tell insofar as there are Pinkernarians in the world they are entirely unorganized, and exactly as docile as Orwell predicted they would be.

To be clear, from Pinker’s perspective this lack of rabid followers is more of a feature than a bug. Popular movements are not known for their rationality, nor are the charismatic leaders of such movements known for their restraint. I think what he’s arguing is that you can be effective, that you can generate the energy necessary to shape the world, without such things, without the fiery emotions Orwell mentioned. That you can do it based entirely on rational self interest. Perhaps, but the evidence appears to be against it. 

Previously, I discussed the difficulties of sustaining political unity in the absence of credible threats, and remarked that it seemed a better explanation than most for the current level of political vitriol. And the big question we should have after all of this, is can it be done? In a world without Hitlers and Churchills can nations still unify to get big important things done? We’ve seen Pinker’s argument for how this will happen, what does everyone else think?

III.

As you’ll recall this all started with a discussion of the possibility that the modern West, and in particular the US contains neither Churchills nor Hitlers. And, if that is indeed the case what it might mean. Orwell argues (and I think with some justification) that such a society is going to be incapable of doing anything particularly grand. He specifically mentions shedding a pint of blood, but I think that could be extended to anything which requires significant sacrifice of their “essentially hedonistic worldview” for the “greater good”. If they’re not willing to hazard the shedding of blood (theirs or others) they might also be unwilling to pay higher taxes, receive fewer benefits or put up with small amounts of inequality. 

Pinker seems to be arguing that ongoing progress will mean that they mostly won’t have to, and that whatever inconveniences remain can be calmly and rationally addressed by an enlightened populace full of calm and rational individuals. But Pinker is also one of those rare individuals who believes the only thing we have to fear about the future is fear itself. (Specifically that such fear will cause us to abandon the enlightenment values which got us here.) A far greater percentage of people think that there are lots of things to worry about in the future, and furthermore lots of problems in the present, and being able to bring together millions of people to solve these problems would sure come in handy. The question is how to get those people to bring with them homeless shelters in their thousands, and solar panels in their tens of thousands rather than aeroplanes and tanks.

Most individuals, when confronted with this question, while still opposed to actual war, do not also go on to deny its power. There’s even a phrase that gets used: “The Moral Equivalent of War”. Wikipedia has a pretty good description of its origins:

…this phrase [comes] from the classic essay “The Moral Equivalent of War” derived from the speech given by the American psychologist and philosopher William James, delivered at Stanford University in 1906, and subsequent book, published in 1910, in which “James considered one of the classic problems of politics: how to sustain political unity and civic virtue in the absence of war or a credible threat…” and “…sounds a rallying cry for service in the interests of the individual and the nation.”

(As far as I can tell Pinker is not a fan of this idea, arguing in his book Better Angels that people shouldn’t be lionizing war even metaphorically.)

This description comes from the entry about President Carter’s use of that term in a famous speech about the energy crisis. (It also resulted in people realizing that the acronym for Moral Equivalent of War is MEOW… ) Carter contended that not only was this crisis large and serious, but that it was potentially catastrophic, and accordingly, it would require the united action of all citizens to solve. His solution was to engage in something that was the “Moral Equivalent of War”. An undertaking which marshalled the resources and devotion of the entire nation without the necessity of the usual external threat. He tried to rally the American People to warlike unity and effort without an actual war. He tried to be a Churchill without there being a Hitler.

Carter was president a long time ago, and if your knowledge of that time is a little fuzzy, let me assure you that Carter was no Churchill. Even if he was, by all accounts, a good man in most other respects. On top of that, as it turned out (and this might be part of Pinker’s argument) the energy crisis turned out to be both temporary and somewhat artificial. the part which wasn’t artificial was mostly solved through gradual gains in efficiency. Not through the use of MEOW. 

These days we have people in a similar position to the one Carter faced, they see large problems on the horizon and they want to rally the US and the Western democracies in general to unify and put forth the same level of effort towards these problems that they put forth to win World War II (or start it in Germany’s case). But how do they do that without a war? How does someone become a Churchill in the absence of a Hitler? You see attempts at this sort of thing with Andrea Ocasio Cortez, and the Green New Deal, Greta Thunberg and her numerous exhortations, and Bernie Sanders and his crusade against inequality. And while these people have numerous very impassioned followers it’s clear that they’re just very successful politicians and public figures, that they’re FDR before the war, not FDR after Pearl Harbor. 

One would have to argue that someone can’t marshal the resources of an entire nation in a fashion similar to what happened during World War II without appealing to the emotions of “racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, [and] love of war”, as was the case with Hitler. Or without appealing to a close analog, say national pride, inspiring leadership, religious belief and love of country, along with being under an immediate and clear existential threat, as was the case with Churchill.

If this is the case where does it leave us? Let’s return to the four possibilities I mentioned above, but with a more specific focus on the US.

  1. Nothing has changed. It is still possible to unite the entire country using something very similar to patriotism, but there needs to be a credible, and immediate threat. Something on the level of the Cold War might work or it might not. (It did get us to the Moon.)
  2. The US and it’s citizens have forever lost the ability to unite against a common enemy. We can no longer produce Churchills, but our (potential) enemies are still capable of producing Hitlers. 
  3. That we have passed into some new world where war is a thing of the past, there are no more Hitlers to force us to unify, but we figure out some other way of accomplishing grand things. Perhaps people are able to unify around mini-Churchills, like Elon Musk and his vision for a Mars colony.
  4. That all people everywhere are gradually giving way to the “essentially hedonistic world-view”, some nations (for example the US) are just farther along than others. But as we all gradually become lotus eaters it will turn out that there’s very little we’re willing to sacrifice, not a pint of blood, not our material comforts, in fact pretty much nothing at all.

Obviously three, Churchills without Hitlers is the one we’re all hoping for, but as I pointed out, there’s very little evidence that we’ve been able to make that pivot. I mentioned Musk, and he is an interesting figure, but having recently read the biography of Henry Ford the parallels are actually pretty striking. Which is to say I don’t think Musk is another Churchill, I think he’s just another Ford, and also as I’ve said repeatedly establishing a Mars colony is ridiculously difficult.

What I suspect and fear is that the US falls in category two or four. And I’m not sure which is more depressing. At least with possibility two, there’s always hope that in face of an aggressive China, or a resurgent Russia that though things will initially look fairly hopeless, eventually we’ll regrow our spine and summon another Churchill. Though even then it’s still difficult to imagine how things would play out, and should another world war break out the presence of nuclear weapons complicates things enormously. (Ground I’ve also covered.) But even if things went against us, I think most people would prefer if we went down fighting. 

In the end while all of these scenarios remain possibilities, as I look around I’m more and more convinced that it is just as Orwell predicted. That in abandoning nationalism and religious belief, along with other, similar emotions, that we have descended into hedonism and narcissism and thereby also given up the only things that were ever capable of unifying people around monumental tasks and grand visions. That the finale of western civilization will be just as the poet predicted:

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.


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Pornography and the End of the World

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It may seem strange to declare that going forward this blog is going to be entirely focused on eschatology, and then to choose pornography as the very next subject. Most people scoff at the idea that pornography could lead to the end of the world all on it’s own. And I mostly agree with that, but as I said, part of what I want to do is expand the discussion of eschatology vertically to encompass things that aren’t commonly considered, but may represent more subtle threats, and I would argue that pornography might be just such a threat. 

In part this is precisely because very few people take it seriously. Everyone understands that if we get hit by a comet, or if the ice caps melt, or if there’s a nuclear war, that even if humanity survives, things will be pretty grim, whereas with pornography, we have the exact opposite situation. There’s a substantial segment of the population who feels that it’s entirely benign, and some who even feel that it’s healthy. As you may have guessed I’m not in either camp, and I’ll explain why.

To start with, if people were certain that some aspect of society was definitely going to end in catastrophe, or worse, end up causing the destruction of that very society. Then they would definitely do something about it. When there’s a clear and present danger, like being invaded by a foreign army, people are pretty good about doing whatever it takes. Unfortunately most dangers are not so obvious, nor so inevitable. Many dangers are subtle, and those which aren’t, are generally improbable. And yet it is from the universe of these subtle and improbable dangers, that catastrophe often emerges. I think we can safely say that no one foresaw that the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand would lead to 40 million deaths (more if you count World War II). And even if we move the causation down a few steps, there were hardly any people who thought war between the Great Powers would cause 40 million deaths. But if we’re going to have any chance of preventing catastrophes, then identifying all the many potential dangers beforehand is a necessary first step.

All of this means that a large part of any study of eschatology has to involve a discussion of catastrophes with a very low probability. As I said, I think it’s extremely unlikely that pornography is going to lead to the end of the world all on it’s own, but I do find it fascinating that numerous people don’t even view it as a danger. This was illustrated by a recent Twitter debate between cultural conservatives and more libertarian conservatives on the topic. I’m sure it doesn’t take much to imagine what that debate was about. The cultural conservatives think that pornography is a huge danger and the government should do more to keep it out of people’s home’s, and the libertarian’s think the pornography is not that big of a deal, and that if you’re worried about it you just need to “parent better”. As you might imagine I’m firmly on the cultural conservatives side. I think that pornography is dangerous and that the danger posed is very subtle and beyond that multi-faceted. 

As part of that debate someone linked to an article in the The Dallas Morning News that illustrates all of these attributes, particularly the idea that you just need to “parent better”. The author describes how something was obviously weighing on her daughter. It took some coaxing, but the daughter eventually revealed what it was:

At a friend’s birthday party, they were playing on the little girl’s phone. The girl handed it to my daughter and said, “Boys are disgusting.” My daughter clicked on a male classmate’s Snapchat story to find a video of him and a few other boys from her class laughing as they watched “rape porn”. She said the woman was bound up, saying “no” as a masked man approached her.

[She] went on to describe a group of boys in her sixth grade class frequently joking about assaulting the girls in the parking lot. She said if any of the girls aren’t sitting with their legs closed, the boys will ask if they want to get pregnant. And if the girls’ legs are crossed, boys from this group often walk by and say, “Spread ‘em.”

To begin with we need to ask if the story is true. I see no reason do doubt that, it doesn’t strike me as being implausible. The behavior described in the last paragraph seems a little over the top and caricatured, but not so much that it seems unrealistic. Perhaps some parts of it are exaggerated, maybe the boys only joked about assault once or twice. Or maybe if we’re really skeptical, it didn’t happen to the author’s daughter it happened to the daughter of a friend, and she was 15. But does anyone doubt that at some point a child was exposed to “rape porn” through some, supposedly benign portal, like Google?

After considering whether the story is true, we have to ask if it’s representative. Again this is hard to say, but every statistic I’ve seen indicates that pornography is ubiqitious, and I’d be very much suprised if most statistics don’t understate the true percentages of teenagers who’ve been exposed to it. Asking a kid if they’ve viewed pornography has the same declaration against interest problem that asking about drugs has. Which is to say, you can definitely trust that everyone who says they have viewed it is telling the truth, but you should definitely carry some doubt about everyone who says that they haven’t.  But regardless of whether it’s 28% of 11-12 year olds, or closer to 50% or 80%, does anyone doubt that children are being inadvertently exposed to really upsetting pornography all the time?

Many people, even those who defend pornography, would basically agree with the first two points (if not the exact details of the example I provided). Which is that children, even those as young as 11, are consuming pornography, and that this consumption is not isolated. But after granting this, many people don’t see any particular harm, and they certainly don’t think that the government needs to do anything about it. Rather, as I mentioned at the beginning, they think that if I or people like me have a problem with it, that we just need to “parent better”. This is a great example of how difficult that is.

This girl wasn’t exposed to “rape porn” because she ended up on Pornhub on the home computer, and it’s the mother’s own fault because she didn’t install content filtering software. She was exposed to it on Instagram. I have no direct knowledge of how common that is on Instagram specifically, but I do know that there are numerous mainstream sites that also host an awful lot of porn (not extreme stuff like in the example, but still) for example Reddit and Imgur. Meaning that a parent can install ironclad content filtering software in their home, but what happens the minute your child goes over to a friends house, or ends up in the presence of a smartphone that doesn’t have filtering software. Or if it ends up on a site like Instagram that isn’t filtered. And of course, no kid has ever figured out how to get around content blocking. The key point being that “rape porn” is easily available on any internet connection unless special, even extraordinary care is taken. 

I said that the story would illustrate that pornography is “dangerous and that the danger posed is very subtle and beyond that multi-faceted” and I think it does, but now that we’re through discussing the provence and how difficult it is for even good parents to restrict, it’s time to get into a specific discussion of the subtle and multifaceted danger of porn. For myself, I have a hard time imagining that sixth graders consuming “rape porn” could be viewed as anything other than dangerous, and even if we assume that most childhood consumption of pornography is not so extreme, they’re still viewing stuff which is almost entirely composed of unhealthy examples of sexual relationships, and it would be difficult to argue that they’re not learning from these examples and translating that into expectations. Indeed, there’s broad evidence for that, and it’s also what happened to the boys in the story I provided as an example. 

Even if you are making the argument that pornography is harmless for most people, (which I don’t agree with) the same could be said of alcohol and yet we universally restrict that to people over 21. Can we at least agree that pornography requires a certain amount of maturity to handle? More maturity than that possessed by the average 11 year old?

Thus far we have only discussed the obvious dangers, but as I said there are more subtle dangers as well. Many people want to focus on the ways in which pornography degrades women. And indeed there was some of that present in the example I provided. But what about the effect it has on men? I know that there are arguments that it warps their expectations of sex (indeed I already made that argument) but let’s set that aside for the moment. You could imagine that pornography could be an entirely healthy outlet (again I don’t think it is) but if it replaced the need for actual sex with real people that would still be bad.

Back in May of 2018 I did a post about incels, (people, especially men, who are celibate, but not by choice) and at the time I posted a graph showing a large upswing in the men aged 22-35 who reported having no sex in the previous year, and speculated that it was probably connected to pornography. And indeed, in terms of the effort required for gratification, you can hardly compare the two. Even under the most optimistic scenarios, finding someone to actually have sex with requires leaving the house, spending some amount of time at a bar, displaying a certain level of charm while at the bar, and whatever additional logistics might end up being required. And normally a lot more than that. While achieving gratification with pornography doesn’t even require someone to get up out of their chair. This asymmetry is hard to ignore, and it’s equally hard to imagine that it doesn’t carry any additional consequences. 

Finally I claimed that the danger from pornography was multi faceted. Which it is. There’s the danger it poses to children, there’s the danger it poses to those who are married (studies indicate it increases the risk of divorce), there’s the danger it poses to people trying to start a relationship, and the danger to those people who will never have a relationship because pornography is easier. But all of those dangers are really only about what is happening right now. Another facet to the potential danger is where things are headed. As I pointed out the last time we were on this subject, we’re only about a dozen years into the era of streaming video, which means that it’s reasonable to assume that the full effects of that innovation are yet to be felt. And I would argue that this is particularly true when it comes to pornographic videos. On top of that there are probably second order and downstream effects. Some of which I’ve already touched on and some of which have yet to be uncovered. 

This is where we get to the other reason for bringing up this subject now, so far what I’ve covered is fairly typical of the debate between cultural conservatives and basically everyone else. But in addition to the twitter debates which define every subject these days, including pornography, there are other, deeper, historical reasons for concern, as laid out in the recent article, Why Sexual Morality May be Far More Important than You Ever Thought by Kirk Durston. I would urge you to read the entire article, but if you don’t have time it’s a discussion of the book Sex and Culture by J.D. Unwin, which was published in 1934. At the time Unwin had engaged in an exhaustive survey of past cultures, and as part of that he came to a somewhat startling conclusion:

If total sexual freedom was embraced by a culture, that culture collapsed within three generations…

Obviously this is an extraordinary claim? What are we to do with it? 

To begin with we can examine it in the light of the subject we were already discussing, pornography. None of the civilizations Unwin studied had anywhere close to the level of pornography that ours does, for technological reasons if nothing else. Does this mean that ours will collapse faster? Maybe it won’t make any difference. Or, I could actually see some people arguing that it will somehow slow the collapse, but honestly, I can’t take either of the final two arguments seriously. Pornography allows people to engage with their depravities to an extent never before possible. And to return to where I began, while I still don’t think it will cause the end of the world all on it’s own, if we take the Unwin’s conclusion seriously, it certainly might contribute. And indeed a civilization of men (and I use that term loosely) who spend more time closeted in their room in the onanistic enjoyment of pornography than out there getting married, having offspring and working to make the world better for their offspring, doesn’t seem like a healthy civilization by any measurement.

Of course most people aren’t asking whether pornography speeds up the collapse of civilization predicted by Unwin, because they reject his prediction all together.  I have a few friends that I can use to take the temperature of the modern world. Friends who are essentially archetypical, intelligent, secular liberals, and all of them considered this prediction to be ludicrous. I’m not surprised by this, but neither do I agree with it, and I think it illustrates one of the key divides in society, one which doesn’t get a lot of airplay.

Many people, including myself, recognize that civilizations do collapse, catastrophe’s do occur, and that to a first approximation certain cultures are present when nations are ascendent and other cultures are generally present when nations are in decline. And while three generations does seem fast. (Unwin’s generations appear to be approximately 33 years, so around 100 total.) The kind of culture where pornography is ubiquitious and sexual restraint lacking does seem to be one of the cultures more often present when a nation is declining than when a nation is ascendent. 

On the other side of that divide, we have the people who think that this time it’s different. That progress and technology have allowed us to create a civilization immune from the problems that plagued past civilizations. Or, perhaps more charitably, that, “Yes, this civilization is fragile just like every other civilization, but it’s not going to be brought down by ‘total sexual freedom’. That’s not a problem with our civilization, that’s what makes it awesome!” 

After considering all of the foregoing we’re left with a host of questions

How are we supposed to decide between these two competing views of eventual catastrophe and modern exceptionalism? 

How seriously should we take Unwin’s prediction?

If the sexual revolution is when our culture embraced “total sexual freedom” does that mean that it’s due to collapse around 2070?  And does the current state of the world support that timeline? 

How do we know what the effect is going to be of any new technology?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I have purchased Sex and Culture, and I will read it and let you know (it is massive), but questions like these are at the core of any study of eschatology. And, as I have said, identifying all of the potential dangers is a necessary first step but it’s not sufficient. And most of the time the potential that any given danger will actually come to pass is going to be difficult if not impossible to assess. So what do we do once we think we’ve identified a danger? Well, as I’ve mentioned before it’s far easier to identify the danger than to know what to do about it, though just awareness can be palliative, but if we’re looking to go beyond that, this is also where the precautionary principle kicks in. Another thing that’s going to come up a lot in any discussion of eschatology. 

I think I’ll save a full discussion of this principle for another time, but I would think that if there are things which could be easily done to minimize future danger, even if that danger has a very low probability, that we should do them. As one example, the Supreme Court has definitely ruled that you can segregate adult content without running into any free speech issues. One way of doing that would be to create a top level domain, say .xxx and require that all pornography be hosted on one of those domains. I understand that there are some technical challenges here, but it’s still a reasonably straightforward low cost solution to the problem of pornography. Whether you think it’s all bad or whether you would just like to keep 11 year old girls from inadvertently viewing “rape porn”. And yet somehow, to my continued bafflement, there is enormous resistance towards any kind of regulation. 

I guess I shouldn’t be baffled. Most people view the current availability of pornography as a minor change in the way the world works. And I understand, that’s an easy position to fall into, progress brings new innovations, society adapts, the world continues. But there’s no guarantee that the world, as we know it, will continue, and lots of reasons to believe that when we’re messing with sex and reproduction, even if it’s just through the avenue of pornography, that we’re messing with something deep rooted and fundamental, possibly in ways we don’t understand. (I didn’t even bring in the idea that pornography is a supernormal stimuli.)

Also, I think people underestimate how much has changed. I remember a time when having HBO in the home was a big deal, and the “Playboy Channel” was the stuff of legends, but just a few decades later and now a large number of people see no problem with giving their kid a smartphone that can access stuff that makes the Playboy Channel look like Barney the Dinosaur.

As I’ve said countless times, predicting the future is impossible. And when I say that people often accuse me of hypocritically doing just that by, for example, entertaining the idea that total sexual freedom, and particularly pornography, will bring down civilization within three generations, but isn’t the opposite true as well? That on the other side they’re predicting that total access, at all ages, to the hardest of the hardcore will have no negative effects? Which is really the more implausible position? 

I agree that there are lots of open questions and that we don’t know what is going to happen, but lets review the questions I posed above one more time, and add a little bit more thought to each.

How are we supposed to decide between these two competing views of eventual catastrophe and modern exceptionalism? Speaking just of pornography if the choices are “eventual contributor to catastrophe” and “things which make modern civilization immune to catastrophe”. It seems far more at home in the first bucket than in the second.

How seriously should we take Unwin’s prediction? I don’t know about the rest of you, but I intend to take every prediction of civilizational collapse seriously.

If the sexual revolution is when our culture embraced “total sexual freedom” does that mean that it’s due to collapse around 2070?  And does the current state of the world support that timeline? Durston certainly thinks it does and his entire article was written in support of that idea. For myself I think three generations seems remarkably specific, but when I look around I don’t see much that would convince me Durston and Unwin are wrong either.

How do we know what the effect is going to be of any new technology? We don’t.


It’s Christmas Eve as I publish this, and I know all of you are wondering, what do I get the eschatologist who has everything?  Well how about a recurring donation? It’s the gift that keeps on giving.


Traditions: Separating the Important from the Inconsequential

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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