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Book Review: The Secret Of Our Success

[Previously in sequence: Epistemic Learned Helplessness]

I.

“Culture is the secret of humanity’s success” sounds like the most vapid possible thesis. The Secret Of Our Success by anthropologist Joseph Henrich manages to be an amazing book anyway.

Henrich wants to debunk (or at least clarify) a popular view where humans succeeded because of our raw intelligence. In this view, we are smart enough to invent neat tools that help us survive and adapt to unfamiliar environments.

Against such theories: we cannot actually do this. Henrich walks the reader through many stories about European explorers marooned in unfamiliar environments. These explorers usually starved to death. They starved to death in the middle of endless plenty. Some of them were in Arctic lands that the Inuit considered among their richest hunting grounds. Others were in jungles, surrounded by edible plants and animals. One particularly unfortunate group was in Alabama, and would have perished entirely if they hadn’t been captured and enslaved by local Indians first.

These explorers had many advantages over our hominid ancestors. For one thing, their exploration parties were made up entirely of strong young men in their prime, with no need to support women, children, or the elderly. They were often selected for their education and intelligence. Many of them were from Victorian Britain, one of the most successful civilizations in history, full of geniuses like Darwin and Galton. Most of them had some past experience with wilderness craft and survival. But despite their big brains, when faced with the task our big brains supposedly evolved for – figuring out how to do hunting and gathering in a wilderness environment – they failed pathetically.

Nor is it surprising that they failed. Hunting and gathering is actually really hard. Here’s Henrich’s description of how the Inuit hunt seals:

You first have to find their breathing holes in the ice. It’s important that the area around the hole be snow-covered—otherwise the seals will hear you and vanish. You then open the hole, smell it to verify it’s still in use (what do seals smell like?), and then assess the shape of the hole using a special curved piece of caribou antler. The hole is then covered with snow, save for a small gap at the top that is capped with a down indicator. If the seal enters the hole, the indicator moves, and you must blindly plunge your harpoon into the hole using all your weight. Your harpoon should be about 1.5 meters (5ft) long, with a detachable tip that is tethered with a heavy braid of sinew line. You can get the antler from the previously noted caribou, which you brought down with your driftwood bow.

The rear spike of the harpoon is made of extra-hard polar bear bone (yes, you also need to know how to kill polar bears; best to catch them napping in their dens). Once you’ve plunged your harpoon’s head into the seal, you’re then in a wrestling match as you reel him in, onto the ice, where you can finish him off with the aforementioned bear-bone spike.

Now you have a seal, but you have to cook it. However, there are no trees at this latitude for wood, and driftwood is too sparse and valuable to use routinely for fires. To have a reliable fire, you’ll need to carve a lamp from soapstone (you know what soapstone looks like, right?), render some oil for the lamp from blubber, and make a wick out of a particular species of moss. You will also need water. The pack ice is frozen salt water, so using it for drinking will just make you dehydrate faster. However, old sea ice has lost most of its salt, so it can be melted to make potable water. Of course, you need to be able to locate and identify old sea ice by color and texture. To melt it, make sure you have enough oil for your soapstone lamp.

No surprise that stranded explorers couldn’t figure all this out. It’s more surprising that the Inuit did. And although the Arctic is an unusually hostile place for humans, Henrich makes it clear that hunting-gathering techniques of this level of complexity are standard everywhere. Here’s how the Indians of Tierra del Fuego make arrows:

Among the Fuegians, making an arrow requires a 14-step procedure that involves using seven different tools to work six different materials. Here are some of the steps:

– The process begins by selecting the wood for the shaft, which preferably comes from chaura, a bushy, evergreen shrub. Though strong and light, this wood is a non-intuitive choice since the gnarled branches require extensive straightening (why not start with straighter branches?).

– The wood is heated, straightened with the craftsman’s teeth, and eventually finished with a scraper. Then, using a pre-heated and grooved stone, the shaft is pressed into the grooves and rubbed back and forth, pressing it down with a piece of fox skin. The fox skin becomes impregnated with the dust, which prepares it for the polishing stage (Does it have to be fox skin?).

– Bits of pitch, gathered from the beach, are chewed and mixed with ash (What if you don’t include the ash?).

– The mixture is then applied to both ends of a heated shaft, which must then be coated with white clay (what about red clay? Do you have to heat it?). This prepares the ends for the fletching and arrowhead.

– Two feathers are used for the fletching, preferably from upland geese (why not chicken feathers?).

– Right-handed bowman must use feathers from the left wing of the bird, and vice versa for lefties (Does this really matter?).

– The feathers are lashed to the shaft using sinews from the back of the guanaco, after they are smoothed and thinned with water and saliva (why not sinews from the fox that I had to kill for the aforementioned skin?).

Next is the arrowhead, which must be crafted and then attached to the shaft, and of course there is also the bow, quiver and archery skills. But, I’ll leave it there, since I think you get the idea.

How do hunter-gatherers know how to do all this? We usually summarize it as “culture”. How did it form? Not through some smart Inuit or Fuegian person reasoning it out; if that had been it, smart European explorers should have been able to reason it out too.

The obvious answer is “cultural evolution”, but Henrich isn’t much better than anyone else at taking the mystery out of this phrase. Trial and error must have been involved, and less successful groups/people imitating the techniques of more successful ones. But is that really a satisfying explanation?

I found the chapter on language a helpful reminder that we already basically accept something like this is true. How did language get invented? I’m especially interested in this question because of my brief interactions with conlanging communities – people who try to construct their own languages as a hobby or as part of a fantasy universe, like Tolkien did with Elvish. Most people are terrible at this; their languages are either unusable, or exact clones of English. Only people who (like Tolkien) already have years of formal training in linguistics can do a remotely passable job. And you’re telling me the original languages were invented by cavemen? Surely there was no committee of Proto-Indo-European nomads that voted on whether to have an inflecting or agglutinating tongue? Surely nobody ran out of their cave shouting “Eureka!” after having discovered the interjection? We just kind of accept that after cavemen working really hard to communicate with each other, eventually language – still one of the most complicated and impressive productions of the human race – just sort of happened.

(this is how I feel about biological evolution too – how do you evolve an eye by trial and error? I’ve read papers speculating on the exact process, and they make lots of good points, but I still don’t feel happy about it, like “Oh, of course this would happen!” At some point you just have to accept evolution is smarter than you are and smarter than you would expect to be possible.)

Taking the generation of culture as secondary to this kind of mysterious process, Henrich turns to its transmission. If cultural generation happens at a certain rate, then the fidelity of transmission determines whether a given society advances, stagnates, or declines.

For Henrich, humans started becoming more than just another species of monkey when we started transmitting culture with high fidelity. Some anthropologists talk about the Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis – the theory that humans evolved big brains in order to succeed at social maneuvering and climbing dominance hierarchies. Henrich counters with his own Cultural Intelligence Hypothesis – humans evolved big brains in order to be able to maintain things like Inuit seal hunting techniques. Everything that separates us from the apes is part of an evolutionary package designed to help us maintain this kind of culture, exploit this kind of culture, or adjust to the new abilities that this kind of culture gave us.

II.

Secret gives many examples of many culture-related adaptations, and not all are in the brain.

Our digestive tracts evolved alongside our cultures. Specifically, they evolved to be unusually puny:

Our mouths are the size of the squirrel monkey’s, a species that weighs less than three pounds. Chimpanzees can open their mouths twice as ide as we can and hold substantial amounts of food compressed between their lips and large teeth. We also have puny jaw muscles that reach up only to just below our ears. Other primates’ jaw muscles stretch to the top of their heads, where they sometimes even latch onto a central bony ridge. Our stomachs are small, having only a third of the surface area that we’d expect for a primate of our size, and our colons are too short, being only 60% of their expected mass.

Compared to other animals, we have such atrophied digestive tracts that we shouldn’t be able to live. What saves us? All of our food processing techniques, especially cooking, but also chopping, rinsing, boiling, and soaking. We’ve done much of the work of digestion before food even enters our mouths. Our culture teaches us how to do this, both in broad terms like “hold things over fire to cook them” and in specific terms like “this plant needs to be soaked in water for 24 hours to leach out the toxins”. Each culture has its own cooking knowledge related to the local plants and animals; a frequent cause of death among European explorers was cooking things in ways that didn’t unlock any of the nutrients, and so starving while apparently well-fed.

Fire is an especially important food processing innovation, and it is entirely culturally transmitted. Henrich is kind of cruel in his insistence on this. He recommends readers go outside and try to start a fire. He even gives some helpful hints – flint is involved, rubbing two sticks together works for some people, etc. He predicts – and stories I’ve heard from unfortunate campers confirm – that you will not be able to do this, despite an IQ far beyond that of most of our hominid ancestors. In fact, some groups (most notably the aboriginal Tasmanians) seem to have lost the ability to make fire, and never rediscovered it. Fire-making was discovered a small number of times, maybe once, and has been culturally transmitted since then.

But it’s not just about chopping things up or roasting them. Traditional food processing techniques can get arbitrarily complicated. Nixtamalization of corn, necessary to prevent vitamin deficiencies, involves soaking the corn in a solution containing ground-up burnt seashells. The ancient Mexicans discovered this and lived off corn just fine for millennia. When the conquistadors took over, they ignored it and ate corn straight. For four hundred years, Europeans and Americans ate unnixtamalized corn. By official statistics, three million Americans came down with corn-related vitamin deficiencies during this time, and up to a hundred thousand died. It wasn’t until 1937 that Western scientists discovered which vitamins were involved and developed an industrial version of nixtamalization that made corn safe. Early 1900s Americans were very smart and had lots of advantages over ancient Mexicans. But the ancient Mexicans’ culture got this one right in a way it took Westerners centuries to match.

Our hands and limbs also evolved alongside our cultures. We improved dramatically in some areas: after eons of tool use, our hands outclass those of any other ape in terms of finesse. In other cases, we devolved systems that were no longer necessary; we are much weaker than any other ape. Henrich describes a circus act of the 1940s where the ringmaster would challenge strong men in the audience to wrestle a juvenile chimpanzee. The chimpanzee was tied up, dressed in a mask that prevented it from biting, and wearing soft gloves that prevented it from scratching. No human ever lasted more than five seconds. Our common ancestor with other apes grew weaker and weaker as we became more and more reliant on artificial weapons to give us an advantage.

Even our sweat glands evolved alongside culture. Humans are persistence hunters: they cannot run as fast as gazelles, but they can keep running for longer than gazelles (or almost anything else). Why did we evolve into that niche? The secret is our ability to carry water. Every hunter-gatherer culture has invented its own water-carrying techniques, usually some kind of waterskin. This allowed humans to switch to perspiration-based cooling systems, which allowed them to run as long as they want.

III.

But most of our differences from other apes are indeed in the brain. They’re just not where you’d expect.

Tomasello et al tested human toddlers vs. apes on a series of traditional IQ type questions. The match-up was surprisingly fair; in areas like memory, logic, and spatial reasoning, the three species did about the same. But in ability to learn from another person, humans wiped the floor with the other two ape species:

Remember, Henrich thinks culture accumulates through random mutation. Humans don’t have control over how culture gets generated. They have more control over how much of it gets transmitted to the next generation. If 100% gets transmitted, then as more and more mutations accumulate, the culture becomes better and better. If less than 100% gets transmitted, then at some point new culture gained and old culture lost fall into equilibrium, and your society stabilizes at some higher or lower technological level. This means that transmitting culture to the next generation is maybe the core human skill. The human brain is optimized to make this work as well as possible.

Human children are obsessed with learning things. And they don’t learn things randomly. There seem to be “biases in cultural learning”, ie slots in an infant’s mind that they know need to be filled with knowledge, and which they preferentially seek out the knowledge necessary to fill.

One slot is for language. Human children naturally listen to speech (as early as in the womb). They naturally prune the phonemes they are able to produce and distinguish to the ones in the local language. And they naturally figure out how to speak and understand what people are saying, even though learning a language is hard even for smart adults.

Another slot is for animals. In a world where megafauna has been relegated to zoos, we still teach children their ABCs with “L is for lion” and “B is for bear”, and children still read picture books about Mr. Frog and Mrs. Snake holding tea parties. Henrich suggests that just as the young brain is hard-coded to want to learn language, so it is hard-coded to want to learn the local animal life (maybe little boys’ vehicle obsession is an outgrowth of this – buses and trains are the closest thing to local megafauna that most of them will encounter!)

Another slot is for plants:

To see this system in operation, let’s consider how infants respond to unfamiliar plants. Plants are loaded with prickly thorns, noxious oils, stinging nettles and dangerous toxins, all genetically evolved to prevent animals like us from messing with them. Given our species wide geographic range and diverse use of plants as foods, medicines and construction materials, we ought to be primed to both learn about plants and avoid their dangers. To explore this idea in the lab, the psychologists Annie Wertz and Karen Wynn first gave infants, who ranged in age from eight to eighteen months, an opportunity to touch novel plants (basil and parsley) and artifacts, including both novel objects and common ones, like wooden spoons and small lamps.

The results were striking. Regardless of age, many infants flatly refused to touch the plants at all. When they did touch them, they waited substantially longer than they did with the artifacts. By contrast, even with the novel objects, infants showed none of this reluctance. This suggests that well before one year of age infants can readily distinguish plants from other things, and are primed for caution with plants. But, how do they get past this conservative predisposition?

The answer is that infants keenly watch what other people do with plants, and are only inclined to touch or eat the plants that other people have touched or eaten. In fact, once they get the ‘go ahead’ via cultural learning, they are suddenly interested in eating plants. To explore this, Annie and Karen exposed infants to models who both picked fruit from plants and also picked fruit-like things from an artifact of similar size and shape to the plant. The models put both the fruit and the fruit-like things in their mouths. Next, the infants were given a choice to go for the fruit (picked from the plant) or the fruit-like things picked from the object. Over 75% of the time the infants went for the fruit, not the fruit-like things, since they’d gotten the ‘go ahead’ via cultural learning.

As a check, the infants were also exposed to models putting the fruit or fruit-like things behind their ears(not in their mouths). In this case, the infants went for the fruit or fruit-like things in equal measure. It seems that plants are most interesting if you can eat them, but only if you have some cultural learning cues that they aren’t toxic.

After Annie first told me about her work while I was visiting Yale in 2013, I went home to test it on my 6-month-old son, Josh. Josh seemed very likely to overturn Annie’s hard empirical work, since he immediately grasped anything you gave him and put it rapidly in his mouth. Comfortable in his mom’s arms, I first offered Josh a novel plastic cube. He delighted in grapping it and shoving it directly into his mouth, without any hesitation. Then, I offered him a sprig of arugula. He quickly grabbed it, but then paused, looked with curious uncertainty at it, and then slowly let it fall from his hand while turning to hug his mom.

It’s worth pointing out how rich the psychology is here. Not only do infants have to recognize that plants are different from objects of similar size, shape and color, but they need to create categories for types of plants, like basil and parsley, and distinguish ‘eating’ from just ‘touching’. It does them little good to code their observation of someone eating basil as ‘plants are good to eat’ since that might cause them to eat poisonous plants as well as basil. But, it also does them little good to narrowly code the observation as ‘that particular sprig of basil is good to eat’ since that particular sprig has just been eaten by the person they are watching. This another content bias in cultural learning.

This ties into the more general phenomenon of figuring out what’s edible. Most Westerners learn insects aren’t edible; some Asians learn that they are. This feels deeper than just someone telling you insects aren’t edible and you believing them. When I was in Thailand, my guide offered me a giant cricket, telling me it was delicious. I believed him when he said it was safe to eat, I even believed him when he said it tasted good to him, but my conditioning won out – I didn’t eat the cricket. There seems to be some process where a child’s brain learns what is and isn’t locally edible, then hard-codes it against future change.

(Or so they say; I’ve never been able to eat shrimp either.)

Another slot is for gender roles. By now we’ve all heard the stories of progressives who try to raise their children without any exposure to gender. Their failure has sometimes been taken as evidence that gender is hard-coded. But it can’t be quite that simple: some modern gender roles, like girls = pink, are far from obvious or universal. Instead, it looks like children have a hard-coded slot that gender roles go into, work hard to figure out what the local gender roles are (even if their parents are trying to confuse them), then latch onto them and don’t let go.

In the Cultural Intelligence Hypothesis, humans live in obligate symbiosis with a culture. A brain without an associated culture is incomplete and not very useful. So the infant brain is adapted to seek out the important aspects of its local culture almost from birth and fill them into the appropriate slots in order to become whole.

IV.

The next part of the book discusses post-childhood learning. This plays an important role in hunter-gatherer tribes:

While hunters reach their peak strength and speed in their twenties, individual hunting success does not peak until around age 30, because success depends more on know-how and refined skills than on physical prowess.

This part of the book made most sense in the context of examples like the Inuit seal-hunting strategy which drove home just how complicated and difficult hunting-gathering was. Think less “Boy Scouts” and more “PhD”; a primitive tribesperson’s life requires mastery of various complicated technologies and skills. And the difference between “mediocre hunter” and “great hunter” can be the difference between high status (and good mating opportunities) and low status, or even between life and death. Hunter-gatherers really want to learn the essentials of their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and learning it is really hard. Their heuristics are:

Learn from people who are good at things and/or widely-respected. If you haven’t already read about the difference between dominance and prestige hierarchies, check out Kevin Simler’s blog post on the topic. People will fear and obey authority figures like kings and chieftains, but they give a different kind of respect (“prestige”) to people who seem good at things. And since it’s hard to figure out who’s good at things (can a non-musician who wants to start learning music tell the difference between a merely good performer and one of the world’s best?) most people use the heuristic of respecting the people who other people respect. Once you identify someone as respect-worthy, you strongly consider copying them in, well, everything:

To understand prestige as a social phenomenon, it’s crucial to realize that it’s often difficult to figure out what precisely makes someone successful. In modern societies, the success of a star NBA basketball player might arise from his:

(1) intensive practice in the offseason
(2) sneaker preference
(3) sleep schedule
(4) pre-game prayer
(5) special vitamins
(6) taste for carrots

Any or all of these might increase his success. A naïve learner can’t tell all the causal links between an individual’s practices and his success. As a consequence, learners often copy their chosen models broadly across many domains. Of course, learners may place more weight on domains that for one reason or other seem more causally relevant to the model’s success. This copying often includes the model’s personal habits or styles as well as their goals and motivations, since these may be linked to their success. This “if in doubt, copy it” heuristic is one of the reasons why success in one domain converts to influence across a broad range of domains.

The immense range of celebrity endorsements in modern societies shows the power of prestige. For example, NBA star Lebron James, who went directly from High School to the pros, gets paid millions to endorse State Farm Insurance. Though a stunning basketball talent, it’s unclear why Mr. James is qualified to recommend insurance companies. Similarly, Michael Jordan famously wore Hanes underwear and apparently Tiger Woods drove Buicks. Beyonce’ drinks Pepsi (at least in commercials). What’s the connection between musical talent and sugary cola beverages?

Finally, while new medical findings and public educational campaigns only gradually influence women’s approach to preventive medicine, Angelina Jolie’s single OP-ED in the New York Times, describing her decision to get a preventive double mastectomy after learning she had the ‘faulty’ BRCA1 gene, flooded clinics from the U.K. to New Zealand with women seeking genetic screenings for breast cancer. Thus, an unwanted evolutionary side effect, prestige turns out to be worth millions, and represents a powerful and underutilized public health tool.

Of course, this creates the risk of prestige cascades, where some irrelevant factor (Henrich mentions being a reality show star) catapults someone to fame, everyone talks about them, and you end up with Muggeridge’s definition of a celebrity: someone famous for being famous.

Some of this makes more sense if you go back to the evolutionary roots, and imagine watching the best hunter in your tribe to see what his secret is, or being nice to him in the hopes that he’ll take you under his wing and teach you stuff.

(but if all this is true, shouldn’t public awareness campaigns that hire celebrity spokespeople be wild successes? Don’t they just as often fail, regardless of how famous a basketball player they can convince to lecture schoolchildren about how Winners Don’t Do Drugs?)

Learn from people who are like you. If you are a man, it is probably a bad idea to learn fashion by observing women. If you are a servant, it is probably a bad idea to learn the rules of etiquette by observing how the king behaves. People are naturally inclined to learn from people more similar to themselves.

Henrich ties this in to various studies showing that black students learn best from a black teacher, female students from a female teacher, et cetera.

Learn from old people. Humans are almost unique in having menopause; most animals keep reproducing until they die in late middle-age. Why does evolution want humans to stick around without reproducing?

Because old people have already learned the local culture and can teach it to others. Henrich asks us to throw out any personal experience we have of elders; we live in a rapidly-changing world where an old person is probably “behind the times”. But for most of history, change happened glacially slowly, and old people would have spent their entire lives accumulating relevant knowledge. Imagine a Silicon Valley programmer stumped by a particularly tough bug in his code calling up his grandfather, who has seventy years’ experience in the relevant programming language.

Sometimes important events only happen once in a generation. Henrich tells the story of an Australian aboriginal tribe facing a massive drought. Nobody knew what to do except Paralji, the tribe’s oldest man, who had lived through the last massive drought and remembered where his own elders had told him to find the last-resort waterholes.

This same dynamic seems to play out even in other species:

In 1993, a severe drought hit Tanzania, resulting in the death of 20% of the African elephant calves in a population of about 200. This population contained 21 different families, each of which was led by a single matriarch. The 21 elephant families were divided into 3 clans, and each clan shared the same territory during the wet season (so, they knew each other). Researchers studying these elephants have analyzed the survival of the calves and found that families led by older matriarchs suffered fewer deaths of their calves during this drought.

Moreover, two of the three elephant clans unexpectedly left the park during the drought, presumably in search of water, and both had much higher survival rates than the one clan that stayed behind. It happens that these severe droughts only hit about once every four to five decades, and the last one hit about 1960. After that, sadly, elephant poaching in the 1970’s killed off many of the elephants who would have been old enough in 1993 to recall the 1960 drought. However, it turns out that exactly one member of each of the two clans who left the park, and survived more effectively, were old enough to recall life in 1960. This suggests, that like Paralji in the Australian desert, they may have remembered what to do during a severe drought, and led their groups to the last water refuges. In the clan who stayed behind, the oldest member was born in 1960, and so was too young to have recalled the last major drought.

More generally, aging elephant matriarchs have a big impact on their families, as those led by older matriarchs do better at identifying and avoiding predators (lions and humans), avoiding internal conflicts and identifying the calls of their fellow elephants. For example, in one set of field experiments, researchers played lion roars from both male and female lions, and from either a single lion or a trio of lions. For elephants, male lions are much more dangerous than females, and of course, three lions are always worse than only one lion. All the elephants generally responded with more defensive preparations when they heard three lions vs. one. However, only the older matriarchs keenly recognized the increased dangers of male lions over female lions, and responded to the increased threat with elephant defensive maneuvers.

V.

I was inspired to read Secret by Scholar’s Stage’s review. I hate to be unoriginal, but after reading the whole book, I agree that the three sections Tanner cites – on divination, on manioc, and on shark taboos – are by far the best and most fascinating.

On divination:

When hunting caribou, Naskapi foragers in Labrador, Canada, had to decide where to go. Common sense might lead one to go where one had success before or to where friends or neighbors recently spotted caribou.

However, this situation is like [the Matching Pennies game]. The caribou are mismatchers and the hunters are matchers. That is, hunters want to match the locations of caribou while caribou want to mismatch the hunters, to avoid being shot and eaten. If a hunter shows any bias to return to previous spots, where he or others have seen caribou, then the caribou can benefit (survive better) by avoiding those locations (where they have previously seen humans). Thus, the best hunting strategy requires randomizing.

Can cultural evolution compensate for our cognitive inadequacies? Traditionally, Naskapi hunters decided where to go to hunt using divination and believed that the shoulder bones of caribou could point the way to success. To start the ritual, the shoulder blade was heated over hot coals in a way that caused patterns of cracks and burnt spots to form. This patterning was then read as a kind of map, which was held in a pre-specified orientation. The cracking patterns were (probably) essentially random from the point of view of hunting locations, since the outcomes depended on myriad details about the bone, fire, ambient temperature, and heating process. Thus, these divination rituals may have provided a crude randomizing device that helped hunters avoid their own decision-making biases.

This is not some obscure, isolated practice, and other cases of divination provide more evidence. In Indonesia, the Kantus of Kalimantan use bird augury to select locations for their agricultural plots. Geographer Michael Dove argues that two factors will cause farmers to make plot placements that are too risky. First, Kantu ecological models contain the Gambler’s Fallacy, and lead them to expect floods to be less likely to occur in a specific location after a big flood in that location (which is not true). Second…Kantus pay attention to others’ success and copy the choices of successful households, meaning that if one of their neighbors has a good yield in an area one year, many other people will want to plant there in the next year. To reduce the risks posed by these cognitive and decision-making biases, Kantu rely on a system of bird augury that effectively randomizes their choices for locating garden plots, which helps them avoid catastrophic crop failures. Divination results depend not only on seeing a particular bird species in a particular location, but also on what type of call the bird makes (one type of call may be favorable, and another unfavorable).

The patterning of bird augury supports the view that this is a cultural adaptation. The system seems to have evolved and spread throughout this region since the 17th century when rice cultivation was introduced. This makes sense, since it is rice cultivation that is most positively influenced by randomizing garden locations. It’s possible that, with the introduction of rice, a few farmers began to use bird sightings as an indication of favorable garden sites. On-average, over a lifetime, these farmers would do better – be more successful – than farmers who relied on the Gambler’s Fallacy or on copying others’ immediate behavior. Whatever the process, within 400 years, the bird augury system spread throughout the agricultural populations of this Borneo region. Yet, it remains conspicuously missing or underdeveloped among local foraging groups and recent adopters of rice agriculture, as well as among populations in northern Borneo who rely on irrigation. So, bird augury has been systematically spreading in those regions where it’s most adaptive.

Scott Aaronson has written about how easy it is to predict people trying to “be random”:

In a class I taught at Berkeley, I did an experiment where I wrote a simple little program that would let people type either “f” or “d” and would predict which key they were going to push next. It’s actually very easy to write a program that will make the right prediction about 70% of the time. Most people don’t really know how to type randomly. They’ll have too many alternations and so on. There will be all sorts of patterns, so you just have to build some sort of probabilistic model. Even a very crude one will do well. I couldn’t even beat my own program, knowing exactly how it worked. I challenged people to try this and the program was getting between 70% and 80% prediction rates. Then, we found one student that the program predicted exactly 50% of the time. We asked him what his secret was and he responded that he “just used his free will.”

But being genuinely random is important in pursuing mixed game theoretic strategies. Henrich’s view is that divination solved this problem effectively.

I’m reminded of the Romans using augury to decide when and where to attack. This always struck me as crazy; generals are going to risk the lives of thousands of soldiers because they saw a weird bird earlier that morning? But war is a classic example of when a random strategy can be useful. If you’re deciding whether to attack the enemy’s right vs. left flank, it’s important that the enemy can’t predict your decision and send his best defenders there. If you’re generally predictable – and Scott Aaronson says you are – then outsourcing your decision to weird birds might be the best way to go.

And then there’s manioc. This is a tuber native to the Americas. It contains cyanide, and if you eat too much of it, you get cyanide poisoning. From Henrich:

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.

Rationalists always wonder: how come people aren’t more rational? How come you can prove a thousand times, using Facts and Logic, that something is stupid, and yet people will still keep doing it?

Henrich hints at an answer: for basically all of history, using reason would get you killed.

A reasonable person would have figured out there was no way for oracle-bones to accurately predict the future. They would have abandoned divination, failed at hunting, and maybe died of starvation.

A reasonable person would have asked why everyone was wasting so much time preparing manioc. When told “Because that’s how we’ve always done it”, they would have been unsatisfied with that answer. They would have done some experiments, and found that a simpler process of boiling it worked just as well. They would have saved lots of time, maybe converted all their friends to the new and easier method. Twenty years later, they would have gotten sick and died, in a way so causally distant from their decision to change manioc processing methods that nobody would ever have been able to link the two together.

Henrich discusses pregnancy taboos in Fiji; pregnant women are banned from eating sharks. Sure enough, these sharks contain chemicals that can cause birth defects. The women didn’t really know why they weren’t eating the sharks, but when anthropologists demanded a reason, they eventually decided it was because their babies would be born with shark skin rather than human skin. As explanations go, this leaves a lot to be desired. How come you can still eat other fish? Aren’t you worried your kids will have scales? Doesn’t the slightest familiarity with biology prove this mechanism is garbage? But if some smart independent-minded iconoclastic Fijian girl figured any of this out, she would break the taboo and her child would have birth defects.

In giving humans reason at all, evolution took a huge risk. Surely it must have wished there was some other way, some path that made us big-brained enough to understand tradition, but not big-brained enough to question it. Maybe it searched for a mind design like that and couldn’t find one. So it was left with this ticking time-bomb, this ape that was constantly going to be able to convince itself of hare-brained and probably-fatal ideas.

Here, too, culture came to the rescue. One of the most important parts of any culture – more important than the techniques for hunting seals, more important than the techniques for processing tubers – is techniques for making sure nobody ever questions tradition. Like the belief that anyone who doesn’t conform is probably a witch who should be cast out lest they bring destruction upon everybody. Or the belief in a God who has commanded certain specific weird dietary restrictions, and will torture you forever if you disagree. Or the fairy tales where the prince asks a wizard for help, and the wizard says “You may have everything you wish forever, but you must never nod your head at a badger”, and then one day the prince nods his head at a badger, and his whole empire collapses into dust, and the moral of the story is that you should always obey weird advice you don’t understand.

There’s a monster at the end of this book. Humans evolved to transmit culture with high fidelity. And one of the biggest threats to transmitting culture with high fidelity was Reason. Our ancestors lived in Epistemic Hell, where they had to constantly rely on causally opaque processes with justifications that couldn’t possibly be true, and if they ever questioned them then they might die. Historically, Reason has been the villain of the human narrative, a corrosive force that tempts people away from adaptive behavior towards choices that “sounded good at the time”.

Why are people so bad at reasoning? For the same reason they’re so bad at letting poisonous spiders walk all over their face without freaking out. Both “skills” are really bad ideas, most of the people who tried them died in the process, so evolution removed those genes from the population, and successful cultures stigmatized them enough to give people an internalized fear of even trying.

VI.

This book belongs alongside Seeing Like A State and the works of G.K. Chesterton as attempts to justify tradition, and to argue for organically-evolved institutions over top-down planning. What unique contribution does it make to this canon?

First, a lot more specifically anthropological / paleoanthropological rigor than the other two.

Second, a much crisper focus: Chesterton had only the fuzziest idea that he was writing about cultural evolution, and Scott was only a little clearer. I think Henrich is the only one of the three to use the term, and once you hear it, it’s obviously the right framing.

Third, a sense of how traditions contain the meta-tradition of defending themselves against Reason, and a sense for why this is necessary.

And fourth, maybe we’re not at the point where we really want unique contributions yet. Maybe we’re still at the point where we have to have this hammered in by more and more examples. The temptation is always to say “Ah, yes, a few simple things like taboos against eating poisonous plants may be relics of cultural evolution, but obviously by now we’re at the point where we know which traditions are important vs. random looniness, and we can rationally stick to the important ones while throwing out the garbage.” And then somebody points out to you that actually divination using oracle bones was one of the important traditions, and if you thought you knew better than that and tried to throw it out, your civilization would falter.

Maybe we just need to keep reading more similarly-themed books until this point really sinks in, and we get properly worried.

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500 Responses to Book Review: The Secret Of Our Success

  1. SolveIt says:

    I am very curious to see where you’re going with this sequence.

    • ManyCookies says:

      First he mentions a so called “friend of a friend” that found belief in Pascal’s Mugging, then posts a review of a book advocating for traditions? The path’s all too obvious, Scott’s coming out as a born-again Protestant Fundamentalist.

      • theredsheep says:

        But they’re a very young tradition. Clearly he needs to become Orthodox Christian, as we’re the result of many centuries of experiments by opinionated Eastern Europeans and Arabs. Or I guess he could just become (practicing) Jewish, which is a more intuitive fit and has at least 50% more traditionpower depending when you start counting. But ancient Christianity was basically what happened when Greek and Jewish cultures mixed, so really we’re a super-efficient hybrid synergy tradition engine.

        • Matt M says:

          In the scale of human evolution, Christianity as a whole is quite new and recent and is often argued (by Christians themselves!) to be a product of reason.

          Better off going with some ancient tribal shamanistic beliefs.

          • Randy M says:

            And that might actually fit in better in the Bay area.

          • theredsheep says:

            No, shamanistic beliefs are optimized for a completely different situation. Ancient Christianity was formed in primarily urban environments, which is a much better fit.

            Ideally, of course, he would change belief systems to adapt to his environment as needed. He’s near San Francisco, so he may wish to think he’s the Emperor of America for the time being.

      • Peter says:

        Trouble is, if he did that, he’d have talked himself into doing something dramatic. Yet a common theme of these posts is why you shouldn’t talk yourself into doing something dramatic, but instead keep doing what you’ve always been doing.

      • Alex Zavoluk says:

        I think you’ve got it backwards. Protestant fundamentalists are terrible at accepting “do/believe X because Tradition” as an excuse. Martin Luther kickstarted the idea that the official authority might be interpreting the bible incorrectly, and the half of history of Protestantism ever since has been “everyone reads the Bible on their own -> everyone comes to slightly different conclusion/rejects existing authority -> huge numbers of independent churches founded at regular intervals.” Just think about Scott’s puritan spotting guide. What are two of the major signifiers? Contrarianism and founding new religions!

        Not every protestant denomination is this way, but for “revering tradition that exists only for obscure, inscrutable, confusing, or no longer relevant, reasons” you have to pick up Catholicism or perhaps one of the Orthodox religions.

      • Yair says:

        “Scott’s coming out as a born-again Protestant Fundamentalist.”.

        No, no. This sequence ends up with Scott studying Gemara. The big question is how many of us follow him there. The arguments are very seducing.

    • sharper13 says:

      As am I. This is sounding a lot like a sequence for Scott which might be best described as:

      “Any man under 30 who is not a liberal has no heart, and any man over thirty who is not a conservative has no brains.”

      … which is pretty ironic, considering the topic implying that using your brains to reason is dangerous. 🙂

      So I’m going to use my “reserve judgement” and “most people don’t actually change much over short times” heuristics and expect Scott to end up at some point which reinforces what he originally thought anyway. Would love to see differently, of course. Always fun when someone publicly actually discovers new information for themselves…

      • blacktrance says:

        My prediction is that the conclusion will be something like “reality is complicated” without any actual changes in Scott’s thoughts, except that this point will occasionally be referenced in passing in future posts in a have-you-considered way.

        • Pattern says:

          Guess so far: 1) It’s a call for Archipelago – we can’t tell what’ll work out ahead of time, so we need to have (large) groups of people try things out so we get data on what does and doesn’t work (which will replicate).
          2) It’s a response to “More Repetition is good.”
          3) It’s an experiment on Free Will – seeing how different the comments this time are from last time.
          4) Bringing up old issues to see if anyone has any new ideas.
          5) This post suggests ideas take time to develop, evolve. Good solutions won’t happen in a day – instead progress will be made by re-running this sequence on a timer, and after it’s been around enough times the problems will be solved.

    • Senessence says:

      I am really glad to read your comment because I was disappointed AlphaZero did not come up. Now I assume it will soon.

    • Ketil says:

      Two very obvious possibilities:

      a) the theme is where rationality fails, or at least how non-rationality might be a better choice

      or:

      c) The first is a warning about crackpots with convincing arguments, and, well, the arguments here, at the meltingasphalt link (down the rabbit hole) are very convincing. Obviously, the next installment will be an equally convincing, but incompatible story.

      • mwigdahl says:

        It seems like another possibility is that he will address the progress of human culture and civilization over time. You could claim that the progress of civilization has created an ever-larger “safe space” where humans spend their time where reason is useful and provides a higher return on investment or better risk/reward structure than the basic cultural transmission described here.

        If cultural transmission overtook individual animal instinct and self-learning, and we’ve now built a cultural structure (“Western Civilization?”) where reason can become more effective than evolved cultural transmission, what does that really mean? And what is the next step?

        • roystgnr says:

          Or even if civilization hasn’t created a “safe space” where reason is useful, it has at least been doing it’s damnedest to create an “unsafe space” where tradition is useless.

          The vast majority of people don’t corral and plant their food the way our ancestors did, and certainly don’t hunt and gather food the way *their* ancestors did. We no longer politic in tribes which are run by people we personally interact with, nor learn from stories passed down within families rather than multibillion dollar conglomerates, nor trade work via a socially-mediated system of favors and reciprocation, nor generalize that work enough to live self-sufficiently without trading with other specialists while ourselves hyper-specializing in occupations which often didn’t exist for our grandparents. We no longer fight hand-to-hand or even arrow-to-arrow. The greatest threats to our lives when young are inventions barely a century old, and the greatest threats when old can only be treated with inventions newer still.

          There’s probably still a lot to salvage from our traditions, but there’s no way to salvage it without using reason to pick and choose what parts are worthy, because anyone trying to live one of our most ancient human codes to the letter would be locked up or shot down as a threat to public safety. In this sort of super-rapidly-changing environment, the tradition which applies most may be a hundred-million-year-old *non*-human tradition: Bet hedging. Producing offspring that will try a bunch of crazy ideas and then tentatively repeat the ones that work may simply be the only way to handle a world where so many non-crazy ideas are obsoleted within a few generations.

    • perpetually.inquisitive says:

      Add me to the list of people very interested in where this is going.

      This particular post has me very excited, because it mirrors how my mind has changed over the recent past (~1-2 years). I’m not sure if it’s going to continue in the same vein, or subvert my expectations (which will be fascinating too!).

      I have found myself moving away from the top-down, platonic view of the world where theories prevail and are explanatory/predictive, towards a more bottom-up, stochastic view of the world where most theories are at best descriptive, and heuristic, empirical responses to the environment are the best way to survive and thrive.

      I blame Nassim Taleb’s writing for my predicament, and I believe Scott would find it beneficial to read more of it too, because it offers up very convincing arguments about why maybe we don’t understand the world as well as we think we do, and some of our newer truth-finding apparatus has some flaws, some of which might be fatal.

      Perhaps controversially, I think this is a trap that the rationalist community falls into too easily, and is part of the reason for why it doesn’t win as often as it should.

    • Spookykou says:

      Clearly he has had an about face on the danger of AI, people can’t think their way out of a paper bag apparently, why should a computer be any different.

  2. patandemma says:

    they smell like rotten fish b/c of their diet.
    when i cruise near a rock where sea lions congregate and the wind is right,can smell them before I see them

  3. deluks917 says:

    I really wonder what weird things I do are going to get me and my friends in trouble. What about my vegan diet? Psychedelic drugs? Heavy metals in protein powder?

    It is worth noting that my friends and I are almost certainly going to do badly on ‘number of offspring’ even if nothing else goes terribly wrong.

    • Aapje says:

      Vegan diets seem quite risky to me. I think that there is a fairly high chance of deficiencies and excesses, especially since it restricts food options so much.

      • HarmlessFrog says:

        Vegan diets are bad because they’re not even possible without modern supplements (except as a strange way to commit suicide). From the cultural tradition angle, too – there are no primitive vegan cultures. Every kind of hunter-gatherer eats animal food, and typically something upwards of 2/3 of their total intake (environment willing).

        • orin says:

          Isn’t this like saying that light bulbs are bad because they wouldn’t be possible without a modern electrical infrastructure?

          • jermo sapiens says:

            Light bulbs are at least somewhat bad. Not because they require a modern electrical infrastructure, but because of the spectrum they emit. It’s not natural and causes stress. Think of the difference in atmosphere between a room illuminated by candles, or natural sunlight, and a room illuminated by light bulbs.

            Light that has a higher energy level in the orange part of the spectrum has a calming effect on us. Think of light during the golden hour (i.e. 1 hour before sunset, when the sun is low on the horizon).

            That said, the practical benefits of light bulbs probably outweigh this disadvantage.

          • John Schilling says:

            If your light bulb stops working, you know immediately that you need to find another source of light and that the reason for this is your light bulb not working. If your vegan diet stops working, you learn ten years later that you’re deathly ill in a way that you probably should have done something about ten years ago but it may not be clear what that is.

        • DinoNerd says:

          I don’t believe this is nutritionally accurate – if you are willing and able to eat sea plants and appropriate microorgranisms. It’s doubtless a lot more convenient to get those things as supplements, but IIRC that’s all.

          Note though that I’m basing this off material I looked at decades ago, and didn’t focus on – I was looking for other nutritional info. Also, it was based off “what nutrients science knew about at the time” – which would of course *also* be the things in the suppplements. There could (logically, anyway) be other things we need present in meat but not either the plants/microbes or the supplements.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            (Hijacking: I saw news stories about the head of the USDA wanting more science-based nutritional funding, but when I look for it now I can’t really find it any more. I was going to bring it up on an Open Thread, but without a source I’m kind of stuck.)

          • HarmlessFrog says:

            I don’t believe this is nutritionally accurate – if you are willing and able to eat sea plants and appropriate microorgranisms. It’s doubtless a lot more convenient to get those things as supplements, but IIRC that’s all.

            To the extreme, yes. Last time I looked at the seaweed B12, it was either trace amounts (far too little for humans) or not a species generally available or traditionally eaten. Trying to get B12 from algae would be like trying to cure a bacterial infection by eating random molds in hopes they happen to contain penicilin. Much better to just take your B12 in supplement form.

    • HarmlessFrog says:

      From a long view, spanning more than your lifespan? Yep, that’s definitely trouble.

      What about my vegan diet? Psychedelic drugs? Heavy metals in protein powder?

      Expecting to be fertile while vegan is somewhat wishful thinking. Still possible, especially early on, but I sure hope none of you are feeding your children that way.

      Regarding heavy metals, I’d mostly look out for iron fortified foods. (And folic acid fortification of foods, too.)

      • deltafosb says:

        Expecting to be fertile while vegan is somewhat wishful thinking.

        Do you have a source for that? My mental model is that if you’re not missing any macro- and micronutrients (pretty much impossible if we’re talking about something else than modern developed countries, but I guess we’re not) everything should work.
        (I’m wary also because of smirkiness factor of your other comments in this thread.)

        • HarmlessFrog says:

          Do you have a source for that?

          Some specific source that says “vegan diet causes infertility”? No. I’m inferring this from (everything here is googlable): a) female vegan complaints (often with a positive spin on it) about losing their periods, b) vegan diets lowering cholesterol (used to make sex hormones), c) a plant-only diet containing very little bioavailable iron, which is an important fertility factor, d) other nutrient deficiencies.

          My mental model is that if you’re not missing any macro- and micronutrients (pretty much impossible if we’re talking about something else than modern developed countries, but I guess we’re not) everything should work.

          A plant-only diet does not contain any:
          – Vitamin D3,
          – Vitamin A (retinol; not everyone can convert beta-carotene to retinol),
          – Vitamin B12.

          As I mentioned above, iron deficiency is likely going to be a problem, even though there is iron in plants – it’s just the less bioavailable non-heme form. Plants don’t contain any EPA or DHA, just ALA (omega-3 fatty acids) so that will probably come up short as well, given the low efficiency of ALA conversion. There’s also the issue of lower quality protein, the best you can do is adequate coverage of the true essentials.

          (I’m wary also because of smirkiness factor of your other comments in this thread.)

          Can’t help that.

          • caryatis says:

            Amennorhea among vegan women is more likely the result of not eating enough calories than the veganism per se. I would also expect higher prevalence of eating disorders among vegan women compared to non-vegan women.

        • deltafosb says:

          A plant-only diet does not contain any Vitamin D3, Vitamin A (retinol; not everyone can convert beta-carotene to retinol), Vitamin B12.

          I know (the inability to synthesize retinol is probably rare though, I couldn’t find any article about this), and anecdatal vegans do as well: every single one I know takes a bunch of supplements. The argument about fatty acids looks more reasonable.

          • HarmlessFrog says:

            every single one I know takes a bunch of supplements

            And very good that they do! 🙂

          • deltafosb says:

            Given that having $restrictive_diet seems sort of fashionable (→ people give little thought to the consequences) it might be uncommon, I don’t really know. Do you have other experience? Perhaps I get the wrong vibe, but from your tone it seems you’re trying to prevent people from hurting themselves (and exaggerate some otherwise valid points in the process).

          • HarmlessFrog says:

            @deltafosb

            Given that having $restrictive_diet seems sort of fashionable (→ people give little thought to the consequences) it might be uncommon, I don’t really know. Do you have other experience?

            I have little direct contact with any vegans. As I said earlier, I’m working backwards from known principles.

            Perhaps I get the wrong vibe, but from your tone it seems you’re trying to prevent people from hurting themselves (and exaggerate some otherwise valid points in the process).

            I am, but I’m not exaggerating.

            I consider the contemporary western diet to be severe foolishness, and a vegan diet to be even worse than that. There are some advantages to the latter (weight loss, notably) but they don’t outweigh being unable to survive long-term without snarfing a fistful of supplements every day.

      • Randy M says:

        Regarding heavy metals, I’d mostly look out for iron fortified foods. (And folic acid fortification of foods, too.)

        Hrmph. Isn’t Folic Acid pretty high in pre natal supplements?

        • bzik says:

          It typically goes along with iron supplements, yes. Also it is often mentioned as one of those nutrients modern diets are rather low on, so unless you subsist off predominantly lentils and kale it seems unlikely to be an issue.

        • HarmlessFrog says:

          @Randy M

          Folic Acid, the synthetic form of the vitamin, is a common food additive. It’s supposed to ward against deficiency, but in a large minority of people with certain MTHFR polimorphisms, it does the opposite. Those folks need methylfolate, not the synthetic garbage.

    • Plants specifically evolved to try to kill anything eating them. It’s unlikely any particular random substance would be anything like that dangerous. Though many random substances are so don’t be complacent.

      • b_jonas says:

        Some plants didn’t. Some plants have evolved such that animals eat their fruit and poop the intact seed so that the plant can spread its offsprings far.

        • HarmlessFrog says:

          That applies only to fruit. It does not apply to stems, leaves, flowers, roots, and so forth – even in the same plant. (And some fruit are only meant to be eaten by a specific species or type of animal, so they may or may not be poisonous to other animals than the intended ones.)

        • theredsheep says:

          Many other plants actually require animals to ingest part of them, in order for the plants to have sex.

          • Aapje says:

            Can you give an example and/or explain how this works?

          • Loris says:

            Can you give an example and/or explain how this works?

            They’re talking about fertilisation of flowering plants. Do you need more details?

          • Spookykou says:

            @Aapje Bees and such I assume.

            *Edit: Although referring to nectar as a ‘part’ of the plant is kinda weird, maybe theredsheep was talking about something else.

          • theredsheep says:

            Yes. I refer to the nectar-for-nookie deal, which has worked out quite well for all parties concerned. Sorry if the wording was confusing.

          • Buttle says:

            Some plants go beyond nectar, for example many yuccas are pollinated by moths whose larvae feed on the yucca seeds.

            http://entomology.wsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/yucca2.pdf

            Figs are also pollinated exclusively by tiny wasps whose larvae feed only on their seeds.

            https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/pollinator-of-the-month/fig_wasp.shtml

            And, as Watchman pointed out, the whole process of domestication is an evolution that results in plants (and animals) being consumed wholesale by humans in exchange for some really sweet deals on disperal and propagation. Works great for the genotype, at least in the short run, if not for the individual.

          • Aapje says:

            I consider it incorrect to consider nectar to be part of the plant, in this context. Nectar is more like fruit, in that it is specifically intended to expended in return for reproductive success.

            It’s also not cannibalism if a person swallows spit, sperm, breast milk or such, from another person.

        • Watchman says:

          And ultimately we have the banana, evolved (with a bit if encouragement) to be bred and eaten by humans…

          • HarmlessFrog says:

            Yep. Modern fruits are basically fibrous sugar, compared to most wild-type fruit. (Because why would a plant invest more than the minimum required energy into its bait?)

          • Mark Atwood says:

            And the avocado, evolved to be eaten and spread by a now extinct species of megafauna sloth. Fortunately, the species that killed all the megafauna also had a taste for avocado.

          • bzium says:

            I didn’t realize time-traveling millennial hipsters counted as a separate species.

        • JPNunez says:

          The manioc in the example is a tuber, aka, overgrown root, though.

          Dunno if it has fruit that can be eaten and its seed spread, tho.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Well, if you ever keep potatoes, or onions, or pretty much? any other root vegetable around for long enough, you understand that they are happy to turn back into full plants.

            I expect that “critters keep digging me up and moving me somewhere else” leads naturally to “therefore let me leverage that as a propagation strategy”. But I could be wrong.

            ETA:
            BTW, this is also a feature of succulents. The cheapo way to get a succulent garden to to collect fallen leaves from succulents and root them.

          • JPNunez says:

            Potatoes seem to have been domesticated 10k years ago.

            Dunno how much evolution happened in that period. Probably enough to make them bigger, but I doubt they shifted to that as their reproduction strategy -particularly as eating a potato does not send seeds into the wild, like eating, say, a tomato-.

          • ADifferentAnonymous says:

            That’s actually an interesting case. Manioc obviously does have a defense against being eaten, but humans figured out how to disarm it.

          • deltafosb says:

            Potatoes seem to have been domesticated 10k years ago. Dunno how much evolution happened in that period.

            I would guess the low-solanin varietes were also heavily selected.

            I doubt they shifted to that as their reproduction strategy

            As a side (perhaps unrelated) note, Jerusalem artichoke with edible tubers (containing indigestible inulin instead of starch, so I wouldn’t rely on them as energy source) reproduces asexually in colder climates. I often see whole wild fields of them blooming just before the winter (with no chances of producing a single seed, obviously).

      • Randy M says:

        Plants specifically evolved to try to kill anything eating them.

        Plants aren’t unique in this regard; fortunately muscles only work to kill you while the bearer is alive.

    • whereamigoing says:

      This reminds me of this experiment — a man ate mainly Twinkies for 10 weeks and several measurable health indicators improved.

      Also, I talked to a doctor I know recently (though not a nutrition specialist) about the carnivore diet and how supposedly people did it for months without bad effects. She wasn’t surprised by that (to my surprise). Her view was that as long as you get enough calories, you can eat pretty much anything for several months and your body will live off stored nutrients, but if you keep depriving yourself, eventually you’ll get health problems that are very hard to reverse.

      So while I’m happy that nutrition science exists, I wouldn’t be so confident in its current results as to do weird, historically novel things like a vegan diet. (Though that could change eventually as science progresses.)

  4. Peter Gerdes says:

    As the examples of the Ecuadorian (?) deaf children left on their own to develop their own language demonstratrs (as do other examples) we do create languages very very quickly in a social environment.

    Creating conlangs is hard not because creating language is fundamentally hard but because we are bad at top down modelling of processes that are the result of a bunch of tiny modifications over time. The distinctive features of language require both that it be used frequently for practical purposes (this makes sure that the language has efficient shortcuts, jettisons clunky overengineered rules etc..) and that it be buffeted by the whims of many individuals with varying interests and focuses.

    I mean it’s somewhat like the difference between D&D style RPGs and writing a fantasy book from scratch. For most people the later is much harder than the former even though it seems weird that a bunch of random rolls and even input from friends who might such at playing their character role. However, just buffeting the story by a whole bunch of little random events and diversions makes it seem more realistic in a way we are very bad at imposing top down because we think up some organizing principle or rule and don’t introduce the kind of fluctuations and random walk style non-directedness that is characteristic of real world.

    • I W​ri​te ​B​ug​s No​t O​ut​ag​es says:

      Indeed. Developing language is easy. Almost any community has unique terms which would not be understood anywhere else.

      The part that’s amazing to me, is how anyone ever managed to successfully communicate with someone who lived more than 10 miles away.

      • nameless1 says:

        Community? A marriage will do. Like a man is a little fat and his wife affectionally calls him “teddy bear”, which gets shortened to “teddy” or “ted” and then the man begins to call his chubby parts “my teds” (teddy bear like parts, the parts that get him called teddy bear), which the wife adopts and their child grows up convinced “teds” are a perfectly valid word for describing the chubby parts of an overweight person. Or “tedding” is feeling up or fondling such parts, which kids like to do and their parents usually tell them to stop because they don’t. “Stop tedding me, please” We have at least two dozen words like this.

    • AnthonyC says:

      The example you’re thinking of was Nicaraguan sign language, I came to post the same thing. Groups of pre-teens are quite capable of quickly inventing fully complex grammars and vocabularies in the absence of any pre-existing language other than a few dozen improvised signs. Kids older than about 12 or so, let along adults, can’t even learn a first language, and can only learn a second language with a huge amount of work. Ditto for just about every creole language in existence, though maybe to a lesser extent.

      That aside, this was a *very* interesting post, and slots right in to my “Don’t believe everything you think” and “Complex systems are easy to break and hard to improve” modules.

      • In addition to Nicaraguan Sign Language, there’s the phenomenon of “home sign” – deaf children who don’t have contact with other signers often develop their own system of signs, complete with its own syntax, to use with people around them. It’s not unusual for siblings about the same age to learn the system quite well, while adults and other people who have less contact with the deaf child only learn a few signs and never pick up any of the grammar. (There’ve been a number of linguistics papers on home sign; Rolf Kuschel, for example, wrote a famous one in 1973 paper called “The Silent Inventor: The Creation of a Sign Language by the Only Deaf-Mute on a Polynesian Island.”)

        (Deaf communities as we know them now, where children can acquire an existing sign language by being immersed in it the way hearing children acquire spoken languages, are a fairly modern phenomenon. Small towns and villages usually won’t have a large enough population of deaf people for a language to be transmitted from one generation to the next – unless there’s a high rate of hereditary deafness; that used to be the case on Martha’s Vineyard, for example. Deaf communities did arise in cities – in the 1700s, Charles-Michel de l’Épée learned the existing Old French Sign Language before founding the first free school for the deaf. While few deaf children in the 21st-century industrialized world grow up with home sign as their only form of communication, that wasn’t always the case.)

        AnthonyC mentions creoles, which seem to have undergone a similar process. In the case of slave creoles, for example, there are historical records of slaveowners fearing that slaves who spoke a common language would organize revolts – and deliberately purchasing slaves who spoke different languages. In the creole languages that developed in the Caribbean, many of the individual words came from African languages or the European languages spoken by the slaveowners (the “substrates”) – but the grammars that arose sometimes had features that the substrates didn’t have, features that do occur in other, unrelated human languages. A major part of the birth of creole languages seems to be the natural result of raising children, whose brains are very attuned to language learning, among adults who are largely communicating with each other using simpler “contact languages”. (Once the creole’s in place, of course, the next generation of children acquires it the same way they would any other language that’s spoken around them.)

        (Creoles can arise in other language-contact settings; in grad school I remember reading a study of Hawaiian Creole English that looked at letters, newspaper articles, diaries, and the like and found evidence for the point in time at which HCE emerged as an identifiable language with a consistent grammar – it seems to have been linked to the suppression of Hawaiian among schoolchildren, IIRC.)

      • Cliff says:

        Kids older than about 12 or so, let along adults, can’t even learn a first language, and can only learn a second language with a huge amount of work. Ditto for just about every creole language in existence, though maybe to a lesser extent.

        Are you sure? I thought this was a myth? That adults can learn a new language just fine if plopped into a situation where they have to use the new language all the time? I thought the general theory of higher brain plasticity at younger ages was greatly overblown as well?

        • Enkidum says:

          The degree to which adults are incapable of learning languages has been grossly overstated, and yeah if you actually put in your thousands of hours in a native setting as an adult, you’re quite likely to end up speaking at a close to native level. Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself is worth reading on this, it’s pop, and clearly biased, but largely correct.

          But you’re veering too far in the other direction. Most synaptic pruning (literally the dying off of the majority of neural connections) occurs in early childhood, and there’s very good reasons to think that this is one of the mechanisms directly responsible for childhood plasticity. Certainly there are some things which you simply cannot learn properly if you don’t develop them at the appropriate age, although these are generally things you might think of as purely physiological (e.g. stereo vision).

          As for creoles and pidgins, there’s no recorded case that I’m aware of where adults created a novel language that actually spreads. Even when there is strong incentive to do so, the best you get is a pidgin. But there are many cases where children in similar situations have created a full creole.

          If anyone has any counterexamples to the above, I’d love to hear them.

          • Winter Shaker says:

            Enkidum:

            there’s no recorded case that I’m aware of where adults created a novel language that actually spreads.

            Does Esperanto count? According to Wikipedia, the overwhelming majority of its speakers are non-native speakers.

        • It’s not a myth. Let me clarify, though, that when we talk about differences in children’s and adults’ language learning capacities, we’re usually talking about native fluency – not just a good ability to read, speak, and understand a new language, but being indistinguishable from someone who grew up with it. (Linguists often speak of children “acquiring” a native language, in contrast with “learning” a second one, to make this distinction clear.)

          Many people do learn languages quite well as adults, but even intelligent people who are immersed in the language and consciously working at it usually have accents (in other words, they continue to use some of the sound rules from their native language) or slightly odd syntax. One of my linguistics professors grew up in Japan, and while he was an expert on English syntax, he occasionally said things I wouldn’t expect to hear from a native speaker – I used to jot down the best ones in the back of my notebook. (Another prof of mine used to say of the old Foreign Service Institute proficiency rankings “Only two people can make you a 5: God and your mother.”)

          In contrast, children will acquire native command of a language they’re immersed in without making any conscious effort. There are still a lot of open research questions concerning child language acquisition, but the idea that children have a capacity for language acquisition, not just generalized brain plasticity, and that this capacity is lost as they age, is very widely accepted.

          P.S. I accidentally hit “Report” instead of “Reply”. I hope I didn’t cause any harm. Also I should consider new glasses.

  5. Peter Gerdes says:

    Also, I’m unconvinced that we don’t want to blame culture for many of these failures to survive. Yes, it’s hard to develop these techniques but it’s even harder when you’ve developed relatively rigid rules.

    I mean I don’t think it’s an accident that survivalist types are often much more willing to break strong cultural norms (e.g. even though it’s not particularly helpful they seem more willing to drink urine). Religious settlers in a new environment are thus an especially handicapped because they are on the very opposite end of extremely rigid cultural conformity.

    • gkai says:

      I don’t think it’s hard to develop those techniques, what is hard is to get them optimized enough in a short amount of time, under survival condition.
      Primitive versions of bow and arrows, sarbacane, spear thrower, harpons, boomerang, bolasses and many types of animal traps are easy to invent and build, once you have the general idea. I know, I made a lot when I was 10y old. Some of them were even surprisingly effective (spear thrower for example). Sure, I had access to some hand tools and sometimes DIY furniture (string-ropes are really really useful), I am clever and not clumsy, but also I was a single 10Y boy without many source of informations appart from documentaries showing hunter gatherers in action (it was pre-internet).
      The difference is I was living in a comfortable suburb with as much food as I wanted, I was just playing. The groups that failed reproducing H-G techniques were in deep trouble survival conditions, non-optimal version of the tools were not good enough and they did not had the reserves needed for experimenting.
      Also, sometimes experimenting is dangerous. Hunting big game for example: Doing it with non-optimal tools/technique may be fatal, and it’s difficult to optimise by trial when you are dead. H-G may have solved this issue by have clumsy tools and technique but large group, the refinement in tool/technique allowing to reduce the hunter team size. Not something you can emulate as a small group of explorer, even very clever ones.

      • Aapje says:

        It’s also likely that the first large game that hunter-gatherers killed was wounded or otherwise in trouble. In general, a common strategy of predator animals is to isolate and kill the weak, not to go after healthy, strong game that can defend itself well.

      • Watchman says:

        I’d point out you were 10 and aping a culture or cultures. The failed European explorers were mature in their own culture and therefore less able to learn a new one. I have the impression (albeit not sure how to substantiate it) that children old enough to cope physically survive better than adults in alien situations like this, which might be cultural adaptability or might just be too many Boy’s Own adventure stories when growing up.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          This is from memory.

          There was something in Deep Survival about this. I think it was children age 6 to 11 who did best. Old enough to have some reserves, but too young to have ego investment to keep going when they had a bad theory. Also, they were more likely to go to ground, which is apparently a good strategy.

    • notpeerreviewed says:

      Historically, haven’t most religious settlers been non-conformists relative to the societies they came from? If anything I would think that the Pilgrims would have seemed like excessively rational types, who followed the logical implications of their religious beliefs to extremes that traditionalists found weird.

      • Simon_Jester says:

        Yeah, but while highly religious colonists were breaking away from some of the cultural mores of their native societies (“Frivolity is a sin, DANCING IS SINFUL”), they were creating even more rigid derivatives of those same societies (“Industry is a virtue, WASTING TIME IS ILLEGAL NOW”). And said rigid derivatives were still based on the same basic matrix of crops, livestock, and technology used by their native land.

        So you’d still expect a fairly high degree of maladaptive behavior.

      • JohnBuridan says:

        Depends on which settling religious group you mean. French Catholics along the St. Lawrence River adapted their faith to the locals much more freely than the Puritans to the south. They also communicated with the natives more and thus learned from them.

    • Matt M says:

      Also, I’m unconvinced that we don’t want to blame culture for many of these failures to survive. Yes, it’s hard to develop these techniques but it’s even harder when you’ve developed relatively rigid rules.

      Indeed. In the case of “European explorers stranded in the Amazon,” it would seem like the best method for survival would be something like “Seek out and make contact with the indigenous population, befriend them, and learn how they manage to survive in such an inhospitable place.” (Note that this is approximately similar to the traditional story of the first American Thanksgiving, heavily implying that befriending and learning from the natives was critical to the survival of English colonists in North America).

      So, why don’t European explorers do that? Some form of arrogance or overconfidence that suggests they have nothing to learn from the “uncivilized” natives? And where does that come from, if not “culture”?

      • Randy M says:

        Maybe, maybe not. Some of those tribes are lethally unfriendly.

      • Buttle says:

        When one is a supplicant, one is more likely to become the slave of any competent native hunter gatherers, rather than the friend. It’s not surprising that many adults preferred starving.

        Consider the case of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca and his companions Estebanico the Moor and two other Spaniards, who were the first Europeans/North African to explore a big chunk of what is now the southern US and northern Mexico. Hundreds of their shipmates perished, many after managing to land safely. Cabeza de Vaca and his companions spent much of their time as the slave of various native tribes, often with literally no possessions whatsoever (he recalled the bitter cold of the US gulf coast, which is understandable for someone with neither clothing nor fire). Eventually they gained a reputation as healers among the tribes, and were able to travel freely from one to the next.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%81lvar_N%C3%BA%C3%B1ez_Cabeza_de_Vaca

        • Matt M says:

          Right. The obvious answer to “Why don’t people seek assistance from (or offer it to) outsiders?” is “fear the outsiders will harm them.”

          And surely, the risk of being enslaved is not one to take lightly.

          But also surely, it seems preferable to starving to death.

          • Buttle says:

            In the context of a hunter gatherer society, as an adult person with little to offer, enslavement is about the best one could hope for.

            And no, it’s not surely better than starving to death.

          • Matt M says:

            Slavery would be untenable as an institution if most people didn’t prefer it to death.

            And starvation seems like one of the worst possible ways to go…

          • Randy M says:

            But the explorers don’t know what they don’t know, specifically the relative odds of starving vs being killed or enslaved–except at the very end, of course, when the odds of starving and 1 and they have moments to reconsider, but not change, their previous stance.

          • Buttle says:

            According to Cabeza de Vaca, starving whilst enslaved was a real possibility, there frequently wasn’t much excess food. Fortunately none of his masters were bent on wasting time seeking escaped slaves, that’s more an agricultural colony thing.

            Adjusting from life as a minor noble, lording it over Indians, Moors, and peons, to being a slave of a minor band of savages must have been difficult. A person showing too much resentment must have risked death by misadventure.

            On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that some of his shipmates actually lived for years with this tribe or that. If Cabeza de Vaca had not discovered his talent for faith healing he would never have been able to travel as he did.

      • herbert herberson says:

        Note that this is how Roald Amundsen navigated the Northwest Passage* for the first time, achieving a dream that killed the Erebus and the Terror and thwarted many others. Where previous explorers had tried and failed with well-funded expeditions of dozens of dedicated sailors, Amundson used a tiny boat and a crew of 6, barely escaping his creditors. But he was iced in next to an Inuit villiage for two years and learned arctic survival from them, and the rest of the trip went off more or less smoothly.

        * back when that was, y’know, still an actual challenge [nervous laughter]

    • caryatis says:

      An example of this from the book Cod, by Mark Kurlansky:

      Why were the pilgrims starving in the richest fishing grounds ever recorded? It seems these religious zealots had not thought to bring much fishing tackle–not that they would have known how to use it…They were also bad at farming…What made it worse, being English, they did not want to eat unfamiliar food. [The Pilgrims refused to eat eel, clam, and lobsters.] The abundant mussels, too, were rejected and continued to be shunned by New Englanders until the 1980s.

  6. Reasoner says:

    Great review. But don’t forget about Chesterton’s meta-fence:

    in our current system (democratic market economies with large governments) the common practice of taking down Chesterton fences is a process which seems well established and has a decent track record, and should not be unduly interfered with (unless you fully understand it)

    Seems like the conventional wisdom among many of today’s most successful people is actually to defy conventional wisdom! It’s like our cultural genome has genes to control its own mutation rate. (Supposedly biological organisms have genes for this as well)

    • chridd says:

      In programming, the idea of “cargo cult programming“—a term describing using programming practices without understanding why, and doing so in places where they don’t make sense, generally seen as a bad thing—seems to fill this role.

      • Reasoner says:

        Yep. “Chesterton’s fence” and “cargo cult” (I think this is the original source of the term “cargo cult”) refer to essentially the same thing but have wildly different connotations.

        • keaswaran says:

          One important distinction is that Chesterton’s fence refers to a cultural tradition that is being continued within its cultural context, while “cargo cult” things involve aping traditional practices of one culture within the context of another.

    • Auric Ulvin says:

      Ah yes, but how do we know that we aren’t simply poisoning those-to-be-born in 50 years with political cyanide? What if the conventional wisdom that you can just keep borrowing money for welfare programs turns out to be wrong? What if the gold standard is actually a super-important way of stopping an economic apocalypse in a hundred years? What if letting Amazon absorb the retail sector is actually a bad thing? I’m sure we can all think of non-economic practices that possess the same properties as poorly treated manioc.

      It’s nearly impossible to know when the forbidden territory you’re building a castle on is empty, or whether there are earthquakes every 100 years that bring the whole edifice down.

      • Murphy says:

        When there’s no real equivalent in the past it’s kinda irrelevant.

        If a nomadic tribe living in tents have a taboo about setting up tents in an area …. 500 years later when their descendants are building the first stone castles there’s a good chance that the taboo was just down to now-irrelevant high winds that the castle doesn’t need to care about.

        meanwhile the non-taboo grasslands where everyone built their tents… could suffer terrible earthquakes that would mean death for everyone in a stone castle but be utterly irrelevant to tents.

        It’s basically pascal’s wager being used to defend traditionalism and as such it shares the same weakness that it only appears to be logical by ignoring half of the possibility space.

        • Indeed: if there is a takeaway from Scott’s post, it is that one way to ensure survival is high-fidelity adherence to traditions + ensuring that the inherited ancestral environment/context is more or less maintained. Adhering to ancient traditions when the context is rapidly changing is a recipe for disaster. No point in mastering seal-hunting if there ain’t no more seals. No point in mastering the manners of being a courtier if there ain’t no more royal court. Etc.

          And the problem is that, in the modern world, we can’t simply all mutually agree to stop changing our context so that our traditions will continue to function as before because it is no longer under our control. I’m not just talking about climate change; I’m talking even moreso about the power of capital, an incentive structure that escapes all conscious human manipulation or control, and which more and more takes the appearance of an exogenous force, remaking the world “in its own image,” turning “all that is solid into air,” and compelling all societies, upon pain of extinction, to keep up with its rapid changes in context. This is why every true traditionalist must be, at heart, an anti-capitalist…if they truly understand capitalism.

          Which societies had more success in the 18th and 19th centuries in the context of this new force, capital? Those who held rigidly to traditions (like Qing China), or those who tolerated or even encouraged experimentation? Enlightenment ideas would not have been nearly so persuasive if they hadn’t had the prestige of giving countries like the Netherlands, England, France, and America an edge. Even countries that were not on the leading edge of the Enlightenment, and who only grudgingly and half-heartedly compromised with it like Germany, Austria, and (to some extent) Japan, did better than those who held onto traditions even longer, like the Ottoman Empire or Russia, or China.

          In particular, you can’t fault Russia or China for being even more experimental in the 20th century (Marxism, communism, etc.) if you realize that this was an understandable reaction to being visibly not experimental enough in the 19th century.

          • By the way, one of the things I love about the Kaiserreich mod to Hearts of Iron IV is how it up-ends our conventional wisdom about how “liberal democratic capitalism” was always destined, a la Fukuyama, to be the perfect balance of tradition and experimentation.

            If you plot tradition vs. experimentation on a spectrum, with Qing China being at the tradition end, Wilhelmine Germany being slightly less traditionalist, England/France being less traditionalist still, and 1920s Soviet Union being the least traditionalist of all, the Kaiserreich mod imagines an alternate history where Imperial Germany won WWI and where it appears “obvious” to all that Imperial Germany’s mixture of traditional Prussian virtues and constitutional monarchy, its place on that spectrum of tradition vs. experimentation, is in fact the perfect point of balance, whereas Anglo-French liberalism is obviously just an unstable stepping-stone to communist revolution (in the mod, Britain and France experience communist revolution after WWI).

          • christiankl says:

            Just because Germany didn’t move to democracy doesn’t mean that they weren’t at the leading edge of the Enlightenment.

            Germany for example thought earlier about how to systematically educate all of it’s population.

            The US and the UK still have a legal system that’s build on pre-Enlightment common law.

          • Furslid says:

            I think an important piece of this, which I hope Scott will get to in later points is to be less confident in our new culture. It makes sense to doubt if our old culture applies. However, it is also incredibly unlikely that we have an optimized new culture yet.

            We should be less confident that our new culture is right for new situations than that the old culture was right for old situations. This means we should be more accepting of people tweaking the new culture. We should also enforce it less strongly.

          • broblawsky says:

            Wilhelmine Germany wasn’t a single political mass: there were both pro-monarchist authoritarians and pro-reform quasi-republicans. It’s just that WWI happened while the authoritarians were in charge, thanks to Wilhelm’s personal support. A different Kaiser would’ve resulted in a very different 20th century.

      • notpeerreviewed says:

        We’ve been off the gold standard for almost a hundred years now, and the gold standard existed for only a few hundred years before that. That’s not ancient wisdom, like manioc preparation in the Amazon; that’s comparable to the time frame of manioc in West Africa, where people are still getting from cyanide poisoning.

        There’s a danger, when applying this kind of reasoning, of mistakenly thinking traditions are older than they actually are.

        • Matt M says:

          the gold standard existed for only a few hundred years before that

          I don’t think this is quite right.

          The “gold standard” was just one simple variety of the general concept of commodity money. Commodity money, as a concept, has been around for thousands of years, discovered and practiced independently in virtually every society, anywhere. It’s as close to “ancient wisdom” as anything…

          • Simon_Jester says:

            Yes, but many forms of commodity money have qualities strikingly different from gold. Some ancient pastoral cultures basically ran their economy on the cattle standard, and it worked pretty well for them. But on the one hand, if you mess up your animal husbandry or there’s a drought, all your currency disappears, whereas if there’s good climate and you do things right, your currency literally breeds. Not just in the sense that you can invest it or something, but your individual units of currency are like von Neumann machines for making more of themselves.

            And then there were other societies that ran on a favor/barter/whatever economy, or that ran on such an economy locally while there was a largely separate and parallel specie-based economy that belonged mainly to overlords who lived in an extractive relationship with the peasants whose lives ran on favors and barter. And so on.

            So the gold standard or something much like it (“we should use physical chunks of widely valued metal to represent arbitrary value-tokens for exchange of goods in our society”) stops looking so much like “everyone tried this” and starts looking more like “this is one of several things we’ve seen tried. Your mileage may vary.”

        • and the gold standard existed for only a few hundred years before that.

          How do you define “the gold standard?”

          The use of gold as a common money for international transactions goes back more than a thousand years. On the other hand, I’m not sure there has ever been a time when all human societies used gold as one of their moneys.

      • keaswaran says:

        I mean, there’s lots of good arguments that automobiles and suburbanization and the decline of social organizations led pretty directly to the growing crises of obesity, depression, and various breakdowns in democracy.

      • Simon_Jester says:

        One of the advantages of the current way of doing things is, our economy has grown so productive that we can afford to rebuild our castles a lot more often than we used to, whether the country is earthquake-prone or not…

        But yes, that over-extension of the metaphor only applies to some things, not all. The catch is, “just do things the way we used to” in a changing context falls prey to many of the same objections. What if not borrowing money for welfare programs turns out to choke off economic growth as the bulk of the population becomes too poor to afford and too unskilled to create the products of an industrial economy? What if staying on the gold standard in an industrial civilization causes economic apocalypses, as the fate of a lot of 19th and early 20th century economic crises tends to suggest? What if not letting Amazon absorb the retail sector means inefficiencies so large they leave us permanently stuck short of some higher transformational level of productivity and efficiency?

        Reason, so often the enemy of survival for subsistence hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers, is the only tool that gives us a hope of addressing these problems meaningfully.

      • meltedcheesefondue says:

        >What if the conventional wisdom that you can just keep borrowing money for welfare programs turns out to be wrong? What if the gold standard is actually a super-important way of stopping an economic apocalypse in a hundred years? What if letting Amazon absorb the retail sector is actually a bad thing?

        In all these cases as: how does information about the goodness/badness make itself into the culture? What experience would the culture have gone through that would have caused them to know?

        Nowadays, we have social security and we have massive governments (by historical standards). Our current social security may be sustainable: yes or no, binary choice. How does this “yes” or this “no” affect the culture of past governments with much smaller governments and very different economic systems and demographics? There was parish charity and poor laws: do we expect that experience with these would give a culture any information about our current setup? I’d say the answer is a clear no; better to analyse Social Security with more standard tools (eg projections and models) directly.

        For the gold standard, the past is indeed very instructive: it shows precisely how fiat currencies fail, generally by over-inflation by corrupt or incompetent elites. We can absorb that insight, and then try and figure out whether that behaviour is going to happen again. We have a long tradition of modern countries not collapsing their currencies, with a few counter-examples (Weimar Germany, Yugoslavia, and some others https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperinflation#Notable_hyperinflationary_episodes ). So we’ve already absorbed the main insight from past cultures, and know what to be on the look out for – powerful individuals gaining direct control over a currency, for example.

        Finally Amazon buying the whole retail sector is even easier: we know that monopolies can go bad. We also know that sometimes governments can break up monopolies or mitigate their harm (and sometimes the mere threat of that is enough), and that monopolies don’t tend to go disastrously bad. So, again, we now have all the past lessons, and we can see if they apply; there doesn’t seem to be any extra lesson that culture may hold for us.

    • jermo sapiens says:

      Seems like the conventional wisdom among many of today’s most successful people is actually to defy conventional wisdom!

      Let’s see how that works out in 100 years. Well, we wont see but our great-grand-kids might, if they’re around.

      I have a feeling that a society with a fertility rate of 1.8 which actively seeks to direct its most intelligent women away from motherhood will not last very long.

      • JohnBuridan says:

        Not quite right. Alison Wolf’s book The XX Factor (I recommend) looks at the demographic trends of the top 20% of women versus the other 80% on various standards: income, education, marriage, divorce, children etc..

        She finds that educated women are actually more likely to get married and have kids, but they do it much later, only marry fellow professionals, and spend more time with their children.

        • Aapje says:

          She finds that educated women are actually more likely to get married and have kids

          “Married” does a lot of work in this sentence. The less educated are far more likely to get children outside of marriage.

    • meltedcheesefondue says:

      It’s always a pleasure to rediscover one of my old posts… and to find that it still seems sensible today (that definitely doesn’t always happen ^_^ ).

      And we definitely canalise “defy conventional wisdom” in certain directions. Terrorists and mobs are out; ideologues and demonstrations are fine.

  7. metacelsus says:

    And then there’s manioc. This is a grain native to the Americas.

    Manioc, AKA cassava, is a tuber not a grain. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassava

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Thanks, fixed.

      • Quixote says:

        Also, based on a recent conversation (unrelated to this post actually) that I had with one of my coworkers from central east Africa, I’m not sure that he would agree with the book’s characterization of African adaptation to Cassava. He would probably point out that
        – Everyone in [African country] knows cassava can make you sick, that’s why you don’t plant it anywhere that children or the goats will eat it.
        – In general you want it plant cassava in swampy areas that you were going to fence off anyway.
        – You mostly let the cassava do its thing and only harvest it to use as your main food during times of famine /drought when your better crops aren’t producing
        It seems like those cultural adaptations problem cover most / much of the problem with cassava.

  8. Michael Watts says:

    Heinrich describes a circus act of the 1940s where the ringmaster would challenge strong men in the audience to wrestle a juvenile chimpanzee. The chimpanzee was tied up, dressed in a mask that prevented it from biting, and wearing soft gloves that prevented it from scratching. No human ever lasted more than five seconds.

    I read a book long ago that discussed the vast difference in ability to apply force between humans and chimpanzees. I don’t remember what book it was, so this is an anecdote from memory.

    Why did I call it “the ability to apply force”? Because, according to this book, humans are stronger — at least, they have much more muscle than the chimps do. And between two human men, strength differences are generally about who has more muscle.

    Chimp anatomy is different — their muscles are weaker, but they attach to the bone in more advantageous locations, allowing the chimp to apply the same force as a much, much, much stronger human.

    Confirmation would be appreciated, if someone can.

    • gkai says:

      I doubt that their muscle are either weaker or stronger, muscles are ancient and very important cell types and it’s unlikely less efficient version could have been kept around by selection. Most likely each mammal has his own optimised tradeoff in term of attachment, fast/slow fibers ratio and muscle mass.
      However, the basic idea (attachment difference) makes a lot of sense. Fine motor control and speed seems much better in humans, resistance and strength much better in chimpanzee. This would mean more smaller muscles attached close to articulation for us, less numerous larger muscles attached further for our cousins.
      Speed and motor control can be seen when looking at throwing and stick fighting. There the roles are reversed and chimps and other apes are pathetic compared to humans…
      Be carefull too, fur and general build hides the muscle bulk of our primate cousins, looking at a human and a great ape without skin and fat (not that other great apes have a lot) removed, you see that a gorilla and an adult male chimp are increadibly muscular. I remember well a plastined gorilla I saw a few years ago, and it was striking. They simply have a lot of muscles, and large ligaments, especially in the shoulder/neck area, that alone show there will be a strength difference. And attachments also looked further away from joints, especially in the legs. The ankle for example was completely different. In the arm, it was less clear, cause there was so much muscle I could not see clearly the attachments!

    • rin573 says:

      It seems like the ratio of slow twitch to fast twitch muscle fibers is at least part of the difference. According to this article, human muscle consists of about 30% fast twitch fibers, compared to ~66% for chimpanzees. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/06/how-chimps-outmuscle-humans

    • If I recall correctly this is mostly a matter of where on the bones the muscles are anchored. Chimpanzees get more leverage out of their muscles but at the cost of a smaller range of motion making them unable to, for example, touch the back of their heads. This range of motion is important for humans in terms of throwing things. This suggests that throwing rocks and spears as a hunting technique goes way back in human pre-history.

    • Nicholas says:

      This seems like a distinction without difference if a medium sized chimp can still rip the door off your car, pull you out of it and tear your limbs off…

      My understanding is that we are the only primate that has evolved muscle atrophy as a strategy to facilitate long migrations with scant hunting opportunities -eat our own bodies from the inside out. Meanwhile chimpanzees retain all of the muscle mass they develop over their entire lives making the average chimp’s muscle bulk unmatched by any but our most avid body builders’.

      • moonfirestorm says:

        My understanding is that we are the only primate that has evolved muscle atrophy as a strategy to facilitate long migrations with scant hunting opportunities

        Quick wiki look at muscle atrophy makes me doubt this: it seems like it’s a pretty common system in mammals (it calls out bears as a species that has the rare ability to not do this, during hibernation), so I’m not sure why it would have been removed in primates and then re-added for humans.

        Anecdotal evidence seems to confirm this in mammals: every picture of a starved rescue dog I’ve seen looks like its muscles have been affected as much as the rest of it.

        Can you back this up?

  9. jolhoeft says:

    The section about divination is interesting. I have occasionally read tarot cards for the exact reason given. I assume I am getting a random spread of cards. I take the random collection of symbols, and approach them one of two ways. First is to assume the cards are correct about a given situation, and it requires finding the right perspective. That is kind of a present focused approach. The other is more future focused, which is assume the cards are correct and what does that imply for the future.

    I find this useful for when my thinking gets stuck in an unproductive rut. I look at things differently. Even if the cards are completely wrong, I don’t tend to return to the exact same rut I was in.

  10. ahasvers says:

    There is a very nice experimental demonstration in this article (just saw the work presented at a workshop), where they get people to come as successive “generations” and improve on a simple physical system.

    “Causal understanding is not necessary for the improvement of culturally evolving technology”
    https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-019-0567-9

    The design does improve over generations, no thanks to anyone’s intelligence.
    They get both Physics/Engineering students and other students, with no difference at all. In one variant, they allow people to leave a small message to the next generation to transmit their theory on what works/doesn’t, and that doesn’t help or makes things worse (by limiting the dimensions along which next generations will explore).

  11. davidweber2 says:

    I think the fact that the creation of culture is ignored is a pretty fundamental problem to address. Reason is a way of finding non-stupid ideas to test. The more often whoever does that has a bad day, the more reinforced the meta-tradition against challenging a norm should be.

  12. mmvandr says:

    But…. Living in accordance with centuries-old cultural traditions is at an all time low, right? And…. Life expectancy is way up. Infant mortality is way down. Population is at an all time high.

    As a species, it seems like abandoning lots of old cultural traditions and playing around with lots of new ones has been correlated with surviving and thriving over the last few hundred years.

    • mmvandr says:

      And these days, we’re not born into a singular, ancient culture uniquely adapted to an unchanging local environment that we’re going spend our whole lives in.

      We are born into a a rapidly changing physical/technological/cultural environment. It is dramatically different than the one our parents were born into. It looks like it’ll be dramatically different for our kids, and different again for their kids.

    • bernie638 says:

      Until the nuclear war wipes out most of the people and the few that are left realize that burning witches wasn’t such a bad idea.

      • mmvandr says:

        Yes, until then.

        Just like neanderthal culture was a reliable blueprint for survival until it wasn’t.

        And anasazi culture was… until it wasn’t.

        And everyother culture is/was until it isn’t/wasn’t.

        Witch-burning culture won’t protect you if a large enough meteor smashes into the earth. (Or if your neighbor says you are a witch.)

        No culture has ever emerged that was well positioned for eternal survival.

        • Exactly, as soon as the context changes significantly, the tradition is no longer adaptive.

          For better or worse, “constant revolutionizing” of the way of life is the rule in capitalism, so it is not even a question of whether any tradition can position us for eternal survival, but rather whether any tradition can position us for a mere ~50 years of survival.

          Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.

          It’s not just that old traditions become maladaptive. It’s that, even if we invent new traditions that are more adaptive for our moment right now, and then manage to transmit these new traditions with high fidelity, they too will be antiquated and maladaptive in no time at all.

    • Science is one of the centuries (millennia) old traditions we’ve inherited, and is the one mostly responsible for those gains in life expectancy and population. Yes, the tradition of science allows us to accumulate new knowledge and surpass old ways of doing things, but this would not work without a tradition of trusting in the institution of science. Non-scientists need to believe in a certain degree of scientific consensus in order for the world outside the lab to be consistently affected. Perhaps we’ve been able to abandon old cultural traditions, because the larger tradition of science is bouying everything else up.

      • notpeerreviewed says:

        I wish it were possible to upvote things here because I think this is an extremely important observation. Science relies on reason in certain crucial stages, but for most people, most of the time, science is about trusting certain groups of old people.

      • mmvandr says:

        If science is appropriately thought of as one, millennia-old tradition and it is mostly responsible for gains in life expectancy and population, why do graphs of life-expectancy and population stay basically flat for most of those millennia and then rocket upward in the last tiny bit?

        I think we must be working with very different ideas of what constitutes science.

        • JohnBuridan says:

          You assume that scientific discoveries affect life-expectancy and population linearly. This seems a common misconception. As ForwardSynthesis points out, they don’t.

          Getting to the modern age of science is like trying to cause a traffic jam: each discovery is a car, but we don’t really get the happy effects of a traffic jam until we have enough cars on the road at the same time. The really effective discoveries are like traffic accidents. Medieval Mills were like a flipped semi-truck; Sanitation was like an exploding oil tanker; plastic are like Godzilla rising out of the sea to smash the interstate to smithereens.

          (I love bad analogies.)

          • mmvandr says:

            That makes sense and changes the way I’m thinking about this. Thank you.

            Taking it back to the post and my original comments.

            As a species, it seems like abandoning lots of old cultural traditions and playing around with lots of new ones has been correlated with surviving and thriving over the last few hundred years.

            Forward synthesis suggests, I believe, that science is actually an old cultural tradition like the ones detailed in the original post.

            Does that imply that our current high level of surviving/thriving isn’t largely connected to massively disrupting old cultural traditions? … since science delivered the gains and science is also an ancient cultural tradition like the ones in the reviewed book? That doesn’t feel right to me.

            I agree that there’s no great place to draw a bright line between flint knapping 2 million years ago and the development of the technologies used to eradicate smallpox. So maybe it is all science.

            But the science we have today seems to be much more untethered from rigid cultural tradition than what you guys want me to call science 5000 years ago. And that untethering seems necessary to take full advantage of science’s technological yields of the last few hundred years.

            Glancing through how it’s divided up on Wikipedia, maybe I should be using the phrase “modern science”.

            I propose (not at all originally) that the life-expectancy and population graphs were pretty damn flat for a long time until technological developments resulting (causally) from the development of “modern science” caused them to shoot upward.

            I don’t think “modern science” has much in common with the ancient traditions described in the book reviewed. Modern science is all about not taking things like ancient cultural wisdom for granted.

            So I think it’s fair to separate and try and compare:

            A: the survival benefits delivered by unquestioningly following ancient traditions that seem arbitrary but might be important

            and

            B: the survival benefits delivered by questioning ancient cultural traditions and throwing them out if rational inquiry suggests that’s the right course of action.

          • JohnBuridan says:

            I think there is something to that:
            You can make a nice line between cultural evolution as “science” and rational and empirical sciences which gets started around 500 B.C.E with Thales, Anaxamander, Democritus and the whole gang of people who started questioning about “things below the earth and above the earth” and denying the existence of the gods and making normies uncomfortable and whatnot.
            There are of course examples of scientific inquiry prior to that with Egyptian mathematical texts, which are SO COOL, and Babylonian star charts.

            Rationalist element of modern science gets its first spark with the inquiries of these Anatolian Greeks taking inspiration (probably) from Egypt and Syria. (Heck, you want science as a culture, the Pythagoreans made an IFLScience Cult!)

      • @mmvandr

        Presumably because not all scientific discoveries are made equal. We needed to get to the chemistry track before we could get to the Haber process. Archimedes’s screw is not as important as fertilizer. The engineers who designed late medieval castles were not as important as the engineers who designed late medieval mills and led the way to the industrial revolution, at least when it comes to the specific issue of life expectancy and population increases.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      And birth rates are collapsing.

      It’s Pride Month (but only because bigots standing in the way of progress won’t let us have Pride Season yet) and I saw pictures of people taking their small children to pride parades. Kids are kind of impressionable. When you take your son to a parade and wave a colorful flag and cheer every time dudes kiss each other…well all I can think when I see those pictures is “-14% to chance of successful reproduction.” One example in a much wider trend of the tearing down of fences.

      • deltafosb says:

        -14% to chance of successful reproduction.

        Because ~14% of these children are going to be in homosexual relationships?

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          I have no idea about the number, I just made that up. We don’t really understand what causes homosexuality. I’m using that as an example to rebut

          As a species, it seems like abandoning lots of old cultural traditions and playing around with lots of new ones has been correlated with surviving and thriving over the last few hundred years.

          We’re no longer “surviving and thriving” when birthrates are at their lowest levels in 30 years. Cutting out some steps on the manioc preparation ritual causes downstream effects that were nearly impossible to predict, but perhaps moving from a tradition like “openly denigrating homosexuality” and instead adopting traditions like “taking children to parades for homosexuality” might have a slightly more predictable outcome? *

          I would also point to other trends like denigrating/delaying marriage, strongly encouraging women to go into the workforce, promiscuity and abortion as part of the general “let’s take everything society did to build up to this point and then do the exact opposite” memeplex. The mechanisms by which these things lead to non-reproduction are pretty obvious so holding them up as the way of the future is counter-intuitive and needs explanation. The future belongs to those who show up, and if your memeplex means people who abandon tradition don’t show up, well…

          * No, I’m not advocating for the denigration of homosexuals. I’m describing what changed and my recommendation would be “pushing homosexuality on children seems like a bad idea.”

          Edited to remove the word “you” in an instance I meant the generic “you” and not specifically deltafosb.

          • JPNunez says:

            The most obvious solution is taxing anticonceptives, tho.

          • Buttle says:

            Perhaps we’re just adaptively limiting our population to something compatible with the available resources. In that way we come to resemble hunter gatherers, many of whom have or had cultural practices that limited fertility — long breast feeding periods, many sexual taboos, body modification (eg penile subincision), and more.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            The most obvious solution is taxing anticonceptives, tho.

            And yet “free/insurer provided birth control” is a progressive policy proposal. The highest tax on contraception is on conservative Catholics (your immortal soul).

          • Incurian says:

            Perhaps we’re just adaptively limiting our population to something compatible with the available resources.

            That’s why we find those groups with the least access to resources curtailing their growth the most, right?

          • mmvandr says:

            Can you clarify how pointing out plummeting birthrates contradicts:

            As a species, it seems like abandoning lots of old cultural traditions and playing around with lots of new ones has been correlated with surviving and thriving over the last few hundred years.

            Population growth rate is trending downward, but it’s still positive, so population is still increasing, which seems like a kind of thriving (especially considering the context of the book review above which is all about survival, rather than happiness or quality of life or other possible ideas of what thriving means.)

          • Spookykou says:

            but it’s still positive

            I think some places/populations now have negative growth rates.

          • I have no idea about the number, I just made that up. We don’t really understand what causes homosexuality.

            No, but if algorithms can detect if someone’s gay better than chance even after controlling for fashion, head tilt etc, then I’m inclined to believe that it’s biological. I also doubt concepts like “gay face” or “gay voice” would exist if it was something that depended on cultural trends… or at least for men anyway. I admit I’d be less surprised if women could be memed into being “gay” (in addition to biological lesbians) during their formative years because women show less category specific arousal than men, so it’s possible, but a lot of people who are gay report always being so.

            Anecdotally, my cousin always had “gay voice” from being a child. Not that all gay men are effeminate and all gay women are masculine, but there does seem to be something going on there, which is reflected in a fair few bits of research (finger ratios, algorithms, twin studies, birth order research etc).

            Also, was taking children along to gay pride something that happened even ten years ago? I think gay pride has changed over time.

            We’re no longer “surviving and thriving” when birthrates are at their lowest levels in 30 years.

            Well (to drum on my pet issue), if we hurry up and invent Workbot5000 to do the surviving for us, we can get on with the thriving. There was always going to be a limit to birthrates, and this was always going to mean that unless you produced advanced automation, you experienced economic decline and declines in living standards due to a collapse in the ratio of productive younger people to less productive old folks.

            Limitations on (relative) space produce this alone. It’s something we were always going to have to deal with at some point. It’s going to hit states with generous welfare states harder to be sure, but this isn’t something we could have particularly avoided by listening to some generic traditions. Even third world countries with traditional gender structures are experiencing birth rate declines as they develop, just at a slower rate.

            I would also point to other trends like denigrating/delaying marriage, strongly encouraging women to go into the workforce, promiscuity and abortion as part of the general “let’s take everything society did to build up to this point and then do the exact opposite” memeplex.

            Huge fertility rate declines are pretty much dated from 1960, so I’d chalk it up to contraceptives, mostly the pill, and abortion more than the first two. Promiscuity is more so a consequence of those things than something that emerged on its own, though “promiscuous modern society” may gradually become a dead meme if Gen Z follow the millennials in having less sex than previous generations.

          • Buttle says:

            @Incurian,

            I certainly didn’t mean to say that anyone beyond a lunatic fringe was deliberately trying to minimize resource use. Most people use a procreation stategy that is at least an approximately rational attempt to secure the best standard of living for themselves and their families. There are some details: which sex has the most influence, and which generation? And there is some cultural intertia, it takes a generation for attitudes to change.

            If the poor, fertile populations of today manage to leverage enough fossil fuel use to raise their standard of living to developed nation standards I believe that their birthrate will decline too.

            Declining population growth is an economic and social challenge, but that unlimited exponential growth thing was just never going to work out.

          • Perhaps we’re just adaptively limiting our population to something compatible with the available resources.

            That’s only plausible if we are somehow adapting to predictions of the future. So far as what has happened so far, nutrition has trended up, extreme poverty down, making the modern world better suited to humans than the world in the past.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            If “society pushes homosexuality on the young, so they stop having enough heterosexual sex to produce the next generation” were a realistic failure mode, then the ancient Greeks should have died out.

            And yes, we can special-plead our way around that by saying “oh but the ancient Greeks did XYZ to force all the men they’d socialized into homosexuality into reproducing,” but the point remains that the experiment was made and it didn’t produce the predicted result, so the causation isn’t as simple as “the wages of gay pride are societal sterility.”

            Maybe the problem is less that we’re doing things different, and more that we need to change some of the underlying incentives. Capitalism isn’t going to let women back out of the workforce. The economy as it is now structured isn’t going to make practical for people not to postpone childbearing. If we want more babies, we need a way to jam the endless broadcast beams from Moloch saying “STOP HAVING BABIES” to all the hetero- and bisexual couples.

            Treating the gays as scapegoats and bashing them for being the root cause of our social malaise isn’t going to solve the problem.

          • Cliff says:

            I think some places/populations now have negative growth rates.

            Some? Fertiility is well below replacement in most highly developed places including the U.S., all of Western Europe, and most of Asia. Fertility is well above replacement only in Africa. I wonder how far along that trend we can go. I also wonder about immigration- if places like Germany (Europe) react to declining population by increasing immigration from Africa, what culture will result?

          • Cliff says:

            The economy as it is now structured isn’t going to make practical for people not to postpone childbearing.

            Why not? If income continues to increase there will be less need for people to work in general. My wife and I had no problems starting a family relatively early because we were both high earners (and savers).

          • Simon_Jester says:

            @Cliff

            One answer to this question is that if high earners are a small fraction o the population, their reproductive behavior is irrelevant to the population growth rate. ‘High earners’ relative to what?

            The relevant question is, can the median person afford to have children, and at what age? What about people in the bottom quartile of the income distribution? If they ignore the question and have children anyway, what are the results?

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            If “society pushes homosexuality on the young, so they stop having enough heterosexual sex to produce the next generation” were a realistic failure mode, then the ancient Greeks should have died out.

            And yes, we can special-plead our way around that by saying “oh but the ancient Greeks did XYZ to force all the men they’d socialized into homosexuality into reproducing,” but the point remains that the experiment was made and it didn’t produce the predicted result

            That’s not “special pleading” that a fully coherent argument. The Greek cultural meme was “sure, you can screw boys but make sure you marry a woman and pop out some kids.” That still produces children. Do you think that is the current cultural push behind Pride? “We’re here! We’re queer! But only on the side we’re still going to marry and produce children later!” I don’t think that’s how the chant goes.

            , so the causation isn’t as simple as “the wages of gay pride are societal sterility.”

            Of course not. Which is why I also mentioned promiscuity, birth control, abortion, women in the workforce, pursuit of higher education, etc. Death by a thousand cuts. You take your boy to the gay pride parade and bring him up as a “male feminist” and your girl to the Slut Walk, put her on the pill and tell her to chase that Ph.D. in Gender Studies and 20 years later “oh no, why aren’t they having any kids?!” A mystery for sure.

          • Jaskologist says:

            Spotted Toad predicts “endless grinding culture war” as a result of the interplay between fertility gap and the indoctrination gap.

          • caryatis says:

            >The mechanisms by which these things lead to non-reproduction are pretty obvious

            It’s obvious how promiscuity leads to non-reproduction? Seems like the opposite. Yes, birth control/abortion exist, but still ~1/3 of U.S. pregnancies are unplanned.

          • John Schilling says:

            Yes, birth control/abortion exist, but still ~1/3 of U.S. pregnancies are unplanned.

            There’s “unplanned” in the sense of “my husband and I weren’t planning to have a baby until the year after I finished graduate school, not the year before“, and there’s “unplanned” in the sense of “I missed my last two periods and, oh yeah, there was that really hot guy I hooked up with over spring break…”

            Sexually promiscuous singles are more likely to use birth control and more likely to resort to abortion than are married couples who are planning to have children eventually even if they don’t specifically plan on doing so this year. So, yeah, given abortion and birth control, promiscuity will likely result in fewer pregnancies carried to term.

      • Dan L says:

        And birth rates are collapsing.

        I meant to continue the topic last time, but got pulled away for long enough for the thread to go stale. Thoroughly boiled down, my thesis would be that I give it 1-3 generations before either population levels equilibriate on their own or alternatives to traditional reproduction emerge. How long do you figure we have before the collapse of civilization due to lack of manpower?

        • jermo sapiens says:

          Your thesis might be correct within a context of little or zero immigration, or in the context of moderate to high immigration levels by people sharing the same culture as the natives. But in the current context of high immigration levels from cultures having significantly higher birthrates than the natives, I dont expect anything to equilibriate (is this a word? it’s underlined in red in the editing box). I sure hope I’m wrong.

          • deltafosb says:

            `equilibrate’ is the word you’re looking for.

            I sure hope I’m wrong.

            I would rather expect the birth rates to equilibrate eventually, with descendants of migrants becoming majority in some countries. But what if you are not wrong?

          • jermo sapiens says:

            Thanks.

            If I’m not wrong, I expect a large scale civil conflict in most of the world where the phrase “diversity is our strength” is currently used by authority figures.

          • deltafosb says:

            There were plenty of civil conflicts between groups of comparable sizes before; I would guess often the group with less political power was seen as uncivilized and culturally incompatible with (and by) the rulers’ standards. Are there any reasonable (and nonviolent) strategies to reunify/stabilize the society when it came to this point? Strict social stratification is relatively stable solution, but that’s best I can say about it; I doubt anyone would like to go back to this.
            It somehow did work out in some cases, I guess a posteriori one can say we’re better off without aristocracy (in this case though, wars and blind technological progress seem to be the reasons they’re not in power anymore) or apartheid.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            There were plenty of civil conflicts between groups of comparable sizes before

            Yes. Exactly.

            And in most of these cases, I suspect that there were not institutions of higher learning attended by roughly half the population of 18-22 year olds fanning the flames of conflict by teaching its students that the native population is uniquely evil and responsible for all the ills of the non-native population. Yet, they still had civil war.

          • deltafosb says:

            If I guess correctly the social group which cultural influence you are fearing, I still think we can still postpone the apocalypse. 20%-30% is not that high, I live surrounded by similar percentage of people who have completely different values (I think almost everyone does).

            I suspect that there were not institutions of higher learning attended by roughly half the population of 18-22 year olds fanning the flames of conflict by teaching its students

            This age group is probably not the best litmus paper of state of public discourse though. Do you remember being this young? I do, and it’s quite painful to recall who I was at this point of life (and please don’t make me think about being in high school).

            Not that there are no problems (fueled by Russia, if I were to put on my tinfoil hat).

          • jermo sapiens says:

            If we cant slow down the process at the current levels, what makes you think we’ll be able to slow down the process when the levels are much higher? And does it really matter if the apocalypse comes in 2050 or 2150?

            RE: universities, if your point is that young adults in university are immature and stupid, I agree. But if your point is that what is taught in universities is irrelevant and of no cultural significance, I strongly disagree. And if you do hold that view, I hope you will support my project of eliminating all university faculties with the exception of STEM and Business.

          • deltafosb says:

            if your point is that young adults in university are immature and stupid, I agree.

            Exactly.

            But if your point is that what is taught in universities is irrelevant and of no cultural significance, I strongly disagree.

            My guess is that is does matter, but as the students grow, they become less violent, proselyteous and start to see world through many different perspectives. They will begin to notice that it’s not exactly that native population is uniquely evil, but yes, some points still hold and while it’s not responsible for all the ills, it is responsible for some of them. And what’s wrong about people reasonably discussing this topic?
            (inb4: everything, read the blog post above)

          • Spookykou says:

            The idea that someone is embarrassed by their younger self is very prevalent and I wonder if others have almost the opposite problem, as I feel I do. I often wish that my younger self had been less concerned with being embarrassing and more fully embraced some of my less socially acceptable interests. I feel that I missed out on a lot of things because I was more concerned with fitting in with people who didn’t actually share my interests(I guess in theory I could be ’embarrassed’ that younger me over valued social acceptance but that doesn’t seem like what is normally intended when others make this observation).

            I also feel like I am a better thinker than I was as a teenager, but I don’t feel like that person was an idiot or anything. Maybe I am still too young and at some point I will find current me, as well as younger me, to be a cringe worthy fool.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            And what’s wrong about people reasonably discussing this topic?

            Absolutely nothing. In fact I believe a reasonable discussion of these topics is sorely needed. But that is not at all what is happening on campuses these days.

            As it happens, youtube just recommended this video by Bret Weinstein, which seems to be remarkably on point. I dont know exactly how things will play out, but I’m quite certain that the status quo is deeply unstable and nobody knows what’s coming next.

          • deltafosb says:

            @Spookykou: what interests were too embarrassing for you to pursue?
            But yeah, being oblivious to how your behavior is seen from the outside is a double-edged sword. I did many awkward things which ended up just OK (for everyone involved, not only me) by chance. In retrospect, many of them were just aimed at building my social status (in a very clumsy way).

            I’m not sure if I won’t regret making account on SSC precisely because of this in few years time.

          • deltafosb says:

            I dont know exactly how things will play out, but I’m quite certain that the status quo is deeply unstable and nobody knows what’s coming next.

            I don’t know either, we are lacking any empirical evidence. If anyone is aware of any cohort study of people who were listening to Rage Against the Machine in the 90s, evolution of their political views and impact on society, there is no better moment to bring it up.

          • Spookykou says:

            @deltafosb Basically all of my nerd interests, I was mildly successful at passing myself off as a ‘normal’ teen, but I wish I had just made friends with the anime nerds and gone to conventions and played more* D&D and MTG etc. I enjoyed casual socialization with other ‘normal’ teens, but in retrospect I think I would have enjoyed being a more full throated nerd more(the nerds that I was aware of didn’t suffer any serious bullying or anything at my high school, beyond the isolation of being a clearly distinct subgroup, as far as I could tell).

            *only did this stuff with family

          • @jermo sapiens

            And does it really matter if the apocalypse comes in 2050 or 2150?

            The timing actually matters because if the general opinion of the rationalist sphere is on the mark when it comes to the timeframe, then the apocalyptic potential of the AI issue will shrink all other issues by comparison. There might well be a European civil war over Islam in 2050, but in the other scenario, a living God is running the show, for better or worse.

          • Dan L says:

            `equilibrate’ is the word you’re looking for.

            Yes, that. Mobile did me dirty.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            then the apocalyptic potential of the AI issue will shrink all other issues by comparison

            Yeah I suppose if you believe in AI threat, everything else is a side issue. For whatever reason, I happen to consider the threat of civil conflict to be far worse than the threat posed by AI and global warming, or anything else for that matter.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          I don’t think there will be any collapse of civilization. I think the people making up civilization will change. Republicans/conservatives have a lot more kids than democrats/liberals *. My google-fu must be terrible because I still cannot find the breakdown I saw of those states by race and urban/rural divide, but it was even more pronounced when you looked at white urbanites. It was something like .9 kids per white woman in the city. An awful lot of the still-existent-but-low Democrat births were to minority women, who are less Progressive. If anyone can find these numbers to prove me right or wrong I would greatly appreciate it.

          Anyway I think the Patriarchy Smashers in the cities will die out from simple lack of reproduction while replacing themselves with immigrant populations (immigrants tend to concentrate in the cities) while the rural patriarchal populations will keep on keepin’ on. So the future will be traditional immigrants in the cities and traditional whites in the country and that will be “civilization.”

          BTW Dan, did you get Thea or Dead Cells? Or both? What did you think?

          * I just looked at that link and there’s a related story about Miley Cyrus licking a pro-abortion cake. I mean…this does send a bit of a message, no? Everything that’s “pro have kids” codes Red, everything that’s “don’t have kids” codes Blue? Propaganda works, memes spread, those that reproduce survive and those that don’t die and those that are specifically geared towards “DON’T REPRODUCE” die faster, right?

          • eyeballfrog says:

            There’s a possible equilibrium here where the increased reproduction of the red tribe is offset by the blue tribe converting some of them.

          • Dan L says:

            It was something like .9 kids per white woman in the city. An awful lot of the still-existent-but-low Democrat births were to minority women, who are less Progressive. If anyone can find these numbers to prove me right or wrong I would greatly appreciate it.

            I think it’s wrong to localize the negative birth rates as a specifically racial or Tribal thing, some data I find just poking around the internet indicate post-demographic transition birth rates of ~1 birth/woman are not unusual in a variety of developed cities. Yes, cities: my main skepticism about this being a problem is because – unless I’m seriously misreading a lot of data – cities have been significant population sinks for the vast majority of recorded history. I don’t know about you, but I’d gladly take the demographic transition in exchange for decadal plagues.

            Anyway I think the Patriarchy Smashers in the cities will die out from simple lack of reproduction while replacing themselves with immigrant populations (immigrants tend to concentrate in the cities) while the rural patriarchal populations will keep on keepin’ on. So the future will be traditional immigrants in the cities and traditional whites in the country and that will be “civilization.”

            …would that be a problem? Who exactly will speak against the replacement of existing urban Blue Tribers with a economically-functionally-identical mix of Jews, East Asians, and Indians high-fertility, high-success cultures? No, seriously – I think this might be a win/win/win.

            (Assuming the Demon doesn’t get them as they show up. Personally I think it will, but that’s the second “win” of the trilemma.)

            * I just looked at that link and there’s a related story about Miley Cyrus licking a pro-abortion cake. I mean…this does send a bit of a message, no?

            At the risk of feeding a digression I’d rather avoid, I’d like to protest that the message is abortion-normalization rather than abortion-advocacy. There’s a very important distinction there, and I think it’s the kind that’s easily lost when viewed through an outgroup lens. One of the most annoying trends of culture war is the tendency for messaging to react to opposition with blunt intensification, rather than refinement of functional strategies – this is the path to toxoplasma.

            Everything that’s “pro have kids” codes Red, everything that’s “don’t have kids” codes Blue?

            Disagree. A lot of left-aligned talking points cohere better as I’d-like-to-start-a-family-but-can’t complaints instead of I’d-like-to-party-until-I-die complaints. Apartments are expensive but available – YIMBYism is a response to the complete disjoint between jobs and family housing. Acute care is painful, but ultimately taken care of – socialized medicine is for people planning on spending additional-people’s worth on “optional” medicine. Student loan forgiveness could cut either direction, true, but parental leave I think speaks for itself.

            Condoms are massively, massively cheaper than the alternative, at least for anyone who gives a damn. The question isn’t about subsidizing maladaptive behavior, it’s about controlling the occurrence of a financial crippling. Planning the parenthood, if you will.

            Propaganda works, memes spread, those that reproduce survive and those that don’t die and those that are specifically geared towards “DON’T REPRODUCE” die faster, right?

            As said above – the Demon wins. Breeding takes time away from making your memes as dank as possible.

            BTW Dan, did you get Thea or Dead Cells? Or both? What did you think?

            Grabbed Thea because I caught it for $5 on Steam and duh. Judging by some Youtube, it looks awesome enough that I’d want to set aside multiple hours for a quality first dive, unfortunately haven’t had the time recently. Dead Cells might be more schedule-compatible though, and I’ll probably pick it up at the next sale.

          • Mary says:

            That just makes the blue team yet another factor in evolution: those whose children do not go for blue team are more successful, whatever the factor is that led to it.

          • salvorhardin says:

            To @eyeballfrog’s point, my experience is that a big chunk of the population of liberal urban areas consists of non-traditionally-inclined people fleeing the terrible stifling lives they had in traditionally-inclined places. This includes both international immigrants (formally refugee and not) and intranational immigrants (e.g. people from deep-red parts of the US trying to make a new life away from their horrible religious families who disown them when they come out).

            The idea that the traditionally-inclined will outbreed the non-traditionally-inclined and thereby cause the culture to become more traditionalist relies on an implicit premise about the reliability of transmission of traditionalism in the modern age that is questionable at best.

          • theredsheep says:

            Brought this up in an OT a little while ago, where I identified three strategies (effective sterility with replacement by conversion, married fertility, unmarried fertility) tied to urban secular progressives, religious conservatives, and the frequently apolitical poor respectively. I have a suspicion that retention rates will eventually change, because the current rate is based on blue domination of elite culture-forming institutions, especially public schools. Reds are not blind to what is going on, and the internet makes it easier to culturally balkanize. I think they will eventually form a more conversion-resistant cultural space. The hope of the blues will then lie in converting the third group instead, which is difficult because unmarried/disorganized fertility has a lot of ugly side effects.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            @eyeballfrog

            There’s a possible equilibrium here where the increased reproduction of the red tribe is offset by the blue tribe converting some of them.

            From the link I posted above, some study (epistemic status: sociology study linked in a Yahoo News article ha ha ha!) says political ideology is about 70% heritable. But that cuts both ways. 3/10 Republicans’ kids flee their stifling loving families and wholesome communities to the cities for intravenous drug use and stranger sex better economic opportunities and 3/10 Democrats’ kids scream “screw you non-gender specific parental units I’m going to start a business! And there’s only two genders!!!” before slamming the door on the way out. N=1 family, but my parents vote Republican, so do my sister and I while my brother is a flaming lefty. Incidentally he’s the only one of us who’s childless.

            @Dan L

            …would that be a problem? Who exactly will speak against the replacement of existing urban Blue Tribers with a economically-functionally-identical mix of Jews, East Asians, and Indians high-fertility, high-success cultures? No, seriously – I think this might be a win/win/win.

            Not at all. This is while I like fighting the culture war on the internet with you fine folk I don’t see it as an existential threat. The tiki torch marchers are right when they say “you will not replace us!” Yeah, they’re going to replace themselves with foreigners, not you. Why not put down the stupid tiki torch, go get a job and a wife and replace yourself with your own kids?

            At the risk of feeding a digression I’d rather avoid, I’d like to protest that the message is abortion-normalization rather than abortion-advocacy.

            Sorry, digression unavoidable. I can’t see the difference? When something is not exactly normalized you need to advocate for it to make it normalized? We also have #ShoutYourAbortion trending.

            A lot of left-aligned talking points cohere better as I’d-like-to-start-a-family-but-can’t complaints instead of I’d-like-to-party-until-I-die complaints.

            And is The Demon Moloch? I mean, we’re talking about people sacrificing their children for better economic conditions for themselves. That’s way more “literal Canaanite god of child sacrifice” Moloch than “SSC god of coordination problems” Moloch.

        • @Dan L

          How long do you figure we have before the collapse of civilization due to lack of manpower?

          Long enough that predictions by AI experts about automation would have to be ridiculously optimistic.

          • Dan L says:

            I’m a little confused what you mean – do you mean that civilization is going to collapse quickly enough that automation can’t pick up the slack, or that automation is going to be fast enough that manpower shortages aren’t going to be the problem?

          • Sorry. I’m saying that I think we have long enough that shortages aren’t going to be a problem due to automation picking up the slack. I meant that we have long enough that people in the field (as polled by Nick Bostrom and others) would have to be overly optimistic to a ridiculous degree for this not to be the case. I’m putting a good measure of trust in all the people saying automation is going to be a big issue soon.

          • Dan L says:

            Ah, that makes sense then. Didn’t quite parse “optimistic AI-expert” as someone who thinks AI will take a long time, but it makes sense for a pessimistic view of alignment.

        • DaveK says:

          People are missing the role of synthetic estrogen mimickers on fertility rates. According to one estimate (which I’m struggling to find the link to) if the current decline continues, in 100 years all males will be infertile.

  13. nathan_young says:

    I wonder what the success rate is for removing seemingly arbitrary rules. Many rules were nonsense and removing them gave people more time and freedom. Changing a rule based on your main food staple might be very risky but how often was removing rules beneficial?

    • nathan_young says:

      By all means be cautious, but regarding this:

      And fourth, maybe we’re not at the point where we really want unique contributions yet. Maybe we’re still at the point where we have to have this hammered in by more and more examples. The temptation is always to say “Ah, yes, a few simple things like taboos against eating poisonous plants may be relics of cultural evolution, but obviously by now we’re at the point where we know which traditions are important vs. random looniness, and we can rationally stick to the important ones while throwing out the garbage.” And then somebody points out to you that actually divination using oracle bones was one of the important traditions, and if you thought you knew better than that and tried to throw it out, your civilization would falter.

      There have been significant benefits to consciousness by removing arbitrary rules, whether related to gender, healthcare, political structures. We should seek to understand rules and their effects but right now removing arbitrary rules which we think we know the grounding for seems less risky than leaving them in.

      • Matt M says:

        Uh, I think we can all agree that “arbitrary” rules should be removed. The difficulty is in actually figuring out which rules are arbitrary, and which rules are there to prevent your children from suffering pain and death.

        The point here is that this is not always so obvious. “Pregnant women can’t eat shark,” in the absence of a replicated, peer-reviewed study, might certainly seem arbitrary. But it turns out, nope, it’s actually there for a reason.

        • mmvandr says:

          Yes, but pregnant women and the infants that come out of them are doing A LOT better these days, right? (At least if we’re just taking about suffering pain and death.)

          So are individuals in cultures bound by tradition better at the difficult job of sorting “arbitrary” tradition from “important” tradition than individuals in cultures less bound by tradition?

        • nathan_young says:

          I agree.

          The article might suggest that since some rules that seem arbitrary aren’t we shouldn’t remove arbitrary rules. As you say “pregnant women can’t eat shark”. However, would these societies really have suffered more? Many the children of some pregnant women would have suffered more but removing a hundred other arbitrary rules would have made the culture as a whole suffer less.

          If that is the case, why didn’t rationality triumph anyway. And if that isn’t the case, when did it change? Should we still fear to remove arbitrary rules?

    • eric23 says:

      I think your chances are better if you can identify a major factor that has changed since the rules evolved.

      For example, it used to be that any sensible person could tell you that premarital sex was a bad idea, even if young people in the throes of passion did not realize it. But when the birth control pill was invented (and about the same time, women became more economically self-sufficient and the social safety net grew), suddenly the danger of creating children with nobody to support them was massively decreased, and along with it the main downside to premarital sex.

      It is somewhat harder to figure out what could have changed regarding, say, the taboo on homosexuality.

      • deciusbrutus says:

        The taboo on premarital sex was old and widespread, while the taboo on homosexuality is much more recent. Looking into the events surrounding a rise and fall of a taboo could be notable.

        • jermo sapiens says:

          the taboo on homosexuality is much more recent

          Really? That seems counter intuitive. Maybe you consider Leviticus to be recent, which I suppose it is in the grand scheme of things, but I dont believe that is what you mean. Are you aware of a long lived civilization in which homosexuality was tolerated?

          • It’s not really accurate to ever say that any entire society ever tolerated or dis-tolerated homosexuality. It was always specific to the context, to how it was practiced and what effect it would have on social roles. Insofar as homosexuality (as we think of it) was practiced among the elite in Greece, for example, and did not upset Greek social roles, it was tolerated. But I doubt slaves were allowed to practice homosexuality, or women. Would you allow your cattle to not reproduce?

          • jermo sapiens says:

            @citizencokane:

            Ok, that makes sense. thanks.

          • deciusbrutus says:

            I don’t consider Leviticus to be widespread.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            @citizencokane

            Humans, left to their own devices, tend to have a lot more sex than is necessary for reproduction at a reasonable rate. And in a lot more forms than the ones required or even suitable for reproduction. We’re not the kind of animal species that goes into heat/estrus/whatever once every X years and gets one shot at breeding that has to be taken up on Or Else.

            Restricting the forms of sex humans are allowed to engage in in an attempt to force them to reproduce faster seems kind of pointless in light of that fact.

            Do you have evidence of it being common practice among ancient slaveowners to impose restrictions on the sexuality of their slaves out of some impulse to increase reproductive rates? I’ve never heard of such a practice.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            I don’t consider Leviticus to be widespread.

            Leviticus is part of the best selling book of all time.

          • Aapje says:

            Leviticus is part of the best selling book of all time.

            Harry Potter?

            I didn’t read it, so I have to take your word for it.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            Harry Potter?

            Yes. Leviticus was a Slytherin who disapproved of Dumbledore’s gay lifestyle.

          • deciusbrutus says:

            Leviticus is part of the best selling book of all time.
            So? The taboo of premarital sex doesn’t need a book.

          • caryatis says:

            Like @Simon_Jester said, having same-sex relations does not prevent a person from reproducing; the typical human of either gender has a lot more sex than would be required merely to have, say, one child per year.

      • phi-of-two says:

        The invention of condoms and STD testing & treatment, maybe?

        I can certainly imagine some too-smart people in the past going, “The main reason we’re told not to have premarital sex is pregnancy risk, but if I only have sex with people of my own gender then clearly that reason does not apply, so in that case it’s probably totally fine actually.” And then they catch syphilis and die. And maybe this argument is so obvious that you need an additional taboo on homosexuality in particular to prevent people from thinking of and being convinced by it.

        • theredsheep says:

          I suspect it has more to do with the higher-level necessity of family formation. For almost all of (post-agricultural) human history people needed to have kids often and early to maintain the population, and stable families are important to raising healthy kids. Premarital sex could lead to unstable childrearing environments; homosexuality produces no kids at all.

          I think a homosexuality taboo would be important predominantly for the bi-curious. Given the many peculiar forms sexuality has taken through the ages–e.g., fashionable pederasty–it seems reasonable to assume that most people’s eros is fairly flexible. It may tie to generalized openness traits. I know a surprising number of women who date other women but are not lesbians per se. I don’t know any male equivalents, for whatever reason, but if you can discourage people from fooling around that way, they’re more likely to invest in long-term pair bonding. I guess.

          As to why our sexuality is so malleable in the first place, beats me.

          • Matt M says:

            The fact that having children has gone from “necessary to provide labor which prevents starvation” to “an optional and burdensome expense” in most places is a massive societal shift… perhaps the most massive. It will probably affect all aspects of society in dramatic and unforeseeable ways.

        • notpeerreviewed says:

          Medieval Europeans had only herpes, gonorrhea, and chlamydia to worry about, and I don’t know that any of those three are serious enough to have contributed to the homosexuality taboo. Deadly STDs are a fairly modern thing, for Westerners.

          • methylethyl says:

            Just because they don’t kill the adults who contract them, doesn’t mean they aren’t a big problem, survival-wise. They can all cause fairly serious problems in newborns, which is why it is SOP in hospitals to dose all newborns with antibiotic eye drops (newborns exposed to mother’s chlamydia or gonorrhea infection can get eye infections and become blind, or have their eyes permanently damaged). Newborns exposed to an active herpes lesion can be killed by the virus, which is why the current recommendation is for babies born to herpes-infected mothers (particularly if the infection has active lesions) to be delivered by C-section. Antibiotics and C-sections were not available to our forbears.

            And yes, this is relevant to homosexuality, because historically, homosexuality wasn’t a lifestyle or an identity. It was just a thing people did. Chances are, even if you preferred same-sex partners, you’d still get married (however miserably) and produce some offspring to keep your family happy, inheritances secure, etc. Not such a big deal for lesbians– transmission rates are lower there. Really, really big deal for women who get stuck married to gay men.

            TL:DR: It doesn’t have to kill YOU, just your genetic line.

          • Chances are, even if you preferred same-sex partners, you’d still get married (however miserably) and produce some offspring to keep your family happy, inheritances secure, etc.

            @methylethyl: I don’t disagree that you are describing the historical situation correctly, but can you explain the concept of “keeping one’s inheritance secure”? What does an insecure inheritance look like?

            For example, I will not be having any children, so IF I die with any net-worth at all (a big if!), I may decide to have it donated to some combination of my nieces/nephews or some political institution such as a Marxist party or other cause that I supported. I suppose I would be bummed about my inheritance if all of my nephews/nieces died, AND the world completely dried up of all political causes that I cared about (either because all such political causes were banned by some totalitarian world government, in which case I would have bigger problems on my mind than my inheritance, or because all problems I perceived in the world had been solved by some AI singleton, in which case it is unlikely I would still have net-worth solely to my name to dispose of).

            Would my inheritance not be deemed “secure” by traditionalists? If so, explain why. I am having a difficult time understanding the psychological state of a man who would fuss over having a biological heir to inherit his property. What’s so special about those genes? Why are not my ideological heirs even more worthy?

          • methylethyl says:

            re: citizencokane:

            Probably inheritance doesn’t matter nearly as much, as it would mostly apply, historically, to a small minority of people, in cultures with primogeniture. If you happen to be the eldest son in such a culture, your offspring get a leg up. If you produce viable offspring.

            Things that kill or maim babies, though… they matter a lot. Particularly because exclusive homosexuality as an acceptable practice is a very recent development.

          • Mark Atwood says:

            I am having a difficult time understanding the psychological state of a man who would fuss over having a biological heir

            Says someone who doesn’t have a kid.

        • Randy M says:

          And maybe this argument is so obvious that you need an additional taboo on homosexuality in particular to prevent people from thinking of and being convinced by it.

          Not just homosexuality. Part of the reason AIDS was common in Africa is that they used anal to avoid pregnancy.

      • Matt M says:

        suddenly the danger of creating children with nobody to support them was massively decreased

        Or so it seemed, in the short term.

        This is still recent enough that the full effects of this change are unknown. It’s certainly looking like the sudden spike in the overall amount of children who grow up without father figures is resulting in some… uh… less than optimal outcomes, many of which were not forecasted by most people.

      • S_J says:

        It is somewhat harder to figure out what could have changed regarding, say, the taboo on homosexuality.

        I’m not sure that modern homosexuality has many historical precedents.

        The classical-era culture of Greece (and Rome) accepted same-sex behavior did it in a manner that looks like bisexuality-plus-pederasty in the 20th/21st Centuries.

        That is, men would often have wives-plus-children, and a pre-pubescent male lover on the side. Once the younger male went through puberty, he would no longer be a lover to an older man…but he would be allowed to choose another pre-pubescent male as his own lover.

        I’m not sure how this tradition interacted with STDs. However, the wife-plus-kids part apparently supported the strong cultural need to have a fresh generation of children to propogate the culture.

        Modern culture is still only a couple of generations removed from contraceptive-pills and latex condoms. I think homosexual communities of the type we have now are new things, and are enabled by those factors. (Also enabled by other medical advances that reduce and even push against the practice of procreate-as-much-as-possible.) Even if other cultures in the past switched the taboo on homosexual behavior on or off, I don’t think those are good comparisons to the modern culture.

  14. HarmlessFrog says:

    Compared to other animals, we have such atrophied digestive tracts that we shouldn’t be able to live. What saves us? All of our food processing techniques, especially cooking, but also chopping, rinsing, boiling, and soaking. We’ve done much of the work of digestion before food even enters our mouths. Our culture teaches us how to do this, both in broad terms like “hold things over fire to cook them” and in specific terms like “this plant needs to be soaked in water for 24 hours to leach out the toxins”. Each culture has its own cooking knowledge related to the local plants and animals; a frequent cause of death among European explorers was cooking things in ways that didn’t unlock any of the nutrients, and so starving while apparently well-fed.

    Chopping alone is sufficient. We were halfway up our brain size increase by the time we figured out fire. The ancient Inuits often consumed their meat raw of frozen, like a kind of ice cream – understandable, given the shortage of firewood – and they were hardly malnourished. You can eat raw meat all your life and be fine.

    Once you have stone tools, you don’t need to have big jaws, and once you can procure fatty meat, you don’t need an elaborate digestive tract. Only if you want to usefully eat most plants, you have to either have a gorilla-like gut, or advanced food preparation – which came along really late, like the last 10% of our divergence time.

  15. kastaka says:

    If you won’t eat shrimp or insects, you are probably mildly allergic to them (generally a problem with shrimp is also a problem with insects); humans are also very good at figuring out what is bad for them specifically to eat even though their caregivers want them to eat it (I got in a lot of trouble as a child for picking out all the onions from my food, and later on we discovered I had a medical food intolerance that made them cumulatively bad for my digestive system).

  16. psto says:

    This reminds me of How to be Rational about Rationality by Nassim Taleb (https://medium.com/incerto/how-to-be-rational-about-rationality-432e96dd4d1a): “Survival comes first, truth, understanding, and science later”.

    Since our knowledge of the world is lacking we have to avoid getting in unanticipated trouble. As a result, we should judge not the rationality of a belief, but the rationality of the action that comes from that belief. The latter must be judged by evolutionary considerations first and foremost.

    If Heinrich’s conclusion is that “for basically all of history, using reason would get you killed”, Taleb’s answer is that rationality is just risk management.

  17. When I was in Thailand, my guide offered me a giant cricket, telling me it was delicious. I believed him when he said it was safe to eat, I even believed him when he said it tasted good to him, but my conditioning won out – I didn’t eat the cricket. There seems to be some process where a child’s brain learns what is and isn’t locally edible, then hard-codes it against future change.

    (Or so they say; I’ve never been able to eat shrimp either.)

    I mean, shrimp aren’t kosher, and you’re Jewish, so isn’t that exactly what the hypothesis would predict?

    • HarmlessFrog says:

      Do atheist Jews stick to Jewish dietary law?

      • gbear605 says:

        Some certainly do; one of the most Jewish-law-abiding people I know was also atheist. He would never eat anything that wasn’t properly prepared in a kosher kitchen, didn’t use electronics on the Sabbath, studied the Torah deeply, and also had no belief in God. That said, it is more common for atheistic Jews to avoid the dietary law than religious Jews. I have another friend, an atheistic Jew, whose family would eat bacon for breakfast every Sabbath. So it depends a lot on, get this, cultural traditions.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        From the other side, I’m from a family which is only moderately religious and pretty much doesn’t keep kosher. There are some vestigial habits like not putting butter on meat sandwiches.

        • Randy M says:

          I’ve never seen anyone put butter on meat sandwiches either, except for stuffing some roast into a dinner roll.
          But I definitely going to consider it now, no offense.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            No offense taken. I’ve seen meat sandwiches with butter for sale, but not lately.

      • caryatis says:

        Might have to do with less childhood exposure to non-kosher foods.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      My family isn’t kosher. As far as I know my parents both eat shrimp.

  18. Bugmaster says:

    Sure, questioning age-old manioc-processing traditions would get you killed. But how did these traditions arise to begin with ? Someone had to be the first person to even try eating manioc. Someone had to figure out that soaking it might make it more palatable, and also less toxic. Sure, you could chalk some of that to happy coincidence — maybe some manioc fell into a lake or something, and some desperate wanderer ate it… but still, that wanderer had to be smart enough to try it again, this time on purpose.

    At the end of the day, it’s still our ability reason, to try new things and to draw conclusions from the results, that drives our evolutionary success. Chesterton’s Fence can be a useful mental tool, but without the ability to reason, no one would have built it in the first place.

    • HarmlessFrog says:

      But how did these traditions arise to begin with ?

      Probably like gene mutations, randomly, then the right(er) ones spread.

      • Incurian says:

        I think we can model memesis as basically random throughout a culture, but individual humans are typically not randomly trying every possible action until something sticks (except when they’re using divination apparently, but where did the idea for divination come from?). Even if they did, I’m not convinced that a million (randomly acting) humans in a million ancestral environments eventually produces modernity. Probably the answer is some combination of following tradition, experimenting randomly (or following tradition imprecisely), and experimenting with reason, the proper proportions of which varying with the circumstances.

      • deltafosb says:

        I had a conversation a long time ago with someone studying the subject and the general gist was that the cultural norms do not `reproduce’ in a way similar to organisms and analogies to biology are often flawed.
        It was a long time ago though and I’m not entirely sure if it was not just a dream. Update your priors accordingly.

      • JPNunez says:

        But surely a fully formed tradition did not arise? A random guy one day decided to not eat manioc before a multiday process, and his rivals who laughed at him died?

        I assume that the more correct process is:

        -day 0: humans arrive to what is now Colombia. They eat mostly random fruits and hunt some animals.

        -day 1: some people discover manioc is edible. But it is a small part of their diet. People eventually die of poisoning unless they boil what little manioc they eat.

        Thus two groups survive: The ones who don’t add manioc to their diet, and the ones for whom manioc is 1% of their diet and boil it beforehand.

        The process repeats:

        -day n: the group decides to eat more manioc, as it is easier than hunting whatever birds are around.

        -day n+1: the subgroups that only boil manioc die off, the groups that scrape and boil manioc survive, but manioc is still not important part of their diet to require multiday cleaning.

        As groups make manioc a bigger share of their calorie input, they are selected by the ones that added more steps to manioc cleaning. The groups that do not eat manioc either move away (because agriculture steps in and thus territory must be seized) or are absorbed into the manioc eating culture, having to learn the whole thing at once (and some probably dying when skipping steps).

        • Randy M says:

          One thing that might be relevant–perhaps foods that kill in acute doses take on a sort of mystical affect, and inspires a great deal more cautious but varied experimentation.
          “People have died from manoic, but look how good it is at surviving drought, and it does taste better when boiled. Maybe the gods would like us to treat this in a special way. Let’s rub it between two rocks for a few hours and see what happens.”

          Whereas with the spinach* it’s all, “just wipe off the rabbit droppings and throw it in a bowl.”

          (*It’s hard to think of a plant food that definitely wasn’t dangerous at some point in the past and I’m not confident of my example here)

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        So far as I know, people don’t do wildly elaborate food prep when it isn’t needed. Anyone have examples?

        Very tentative theory: there is a small proportion of people who can feel mild cyanide poisoning, and they drove the development of manioc processing.

        • christiankl says:

          Many people in Western culture do elaborate food prep when it isn’t needed. Few high status stay at home housewifes try to minimize the effort involved in food preparation.

          Investing effort in food preparation is a sign that you care about the people for whom you are cooking.

        • Mark V Anderson says:

          I’ve always thought that the way Orthodox Jews keep meat and dairy separate is very elaborate and time consuming. I don’t think it is needed for health.

      • Randy M says:

        But just like crop and livestock domestication, apply intelligence can speed the process along considerably.
        Random may be the best nature has, but it isn’t the best we can do. The trick, though, is to not propagate the change too wildly so you can observe the effects and revert if there is a problem.

    • eric23 says:

      Given the variety of “coincidences” that had to happen in order for biology to evolve (for example) the eye, I do not doubt that human culture could evolve making manioc safe.

      • Bugmaster says:

        My point is that random mutation alone is not enough; you also need selection — and it is our reason that provides selection. This is what allows our technology to evolve so quickly (in comparison compared to biological evolutionary time scales).

      • JPNunez says:

        Partial eyes are useful, tho.

        Partial manioc cleaning traditions are not useful if manioc makes up half your diet.

        • Randy M says:

          But if it only makes up some of your diet, a method that allows you to use it just enough to survive a drought (like was suggested up thread) sure would be.

    • albatross11 says:

      Think about what circumstances would cause you to be willing to try to figure out how to eat something that made you sick when you first tried it, or was inedibly bitter and then made you sick. It almost has to have been extreme hunger–the folks who worked that process out were desperate and starving. And quite probably, many different tribes found themselves in that position in that region over the years, failed to work out a good processing strategy, and either starved or died of cyanide poisoning. Some group or groups got a good strategy, and then probably expanded by attrition of rival groups, war, and cultural sharing where a friendly neighboring tribe intermarries with yours and the secret to processing gets shared via some of the girls who’ve learned the process going to the new tribe.

  19. Steve Sailer says:

    “But in ability to learn from another person, humans wiped the floor with the other two ape species:”

    My vague impression is that college professors who study chimps, ironically, think too much about learning and not enough about what they, personally, do: teaching. I have a theory that the worst chimp shortfall relative to humans is not in learning ability (chimps are pretty good at aping), it’s in the urge to teach. Other than mothers instructing children, chimps seldom teach other chimps anything. They seem to have the attitude: Why should I teach anybody? I’m a chimp, not a chump.

    In contrast, humans love to teach. For example, if you need to do a home repair, there are likely dozens of videos on Youtube of guys showing you how to do it.

    • The book goes into this at some depth in the chapter on human prestige hierarchies. Humans gain prestige by teaching and so do it fairly often. Chips don’t track prestige and so you only have the mother-child teaching you mention.

      • Paper Rat says:

        In one of David Attenborough documentaries (“Life Story”) they show, that male chimps sometimes do teach younger members of the troop. In particular, low status chimps will occasionally befriend and pass knowledge to even lower status males, seemingly to prop up their own position in the troop and gain allies for future power struggle.

        Relevant episode of the documentary is number four, named “Power”, but the whole series is well worth watching, in my opinion, cause it contains lots of very well produced footage of quite unusual or just non-obvious animal behavior.

    • Aapje says:

      Stop ‘splaining, Steve 😉

    • eric23 says:

      1) If a chimpanzee is good at learning, is it really hard for its mother to teach it? That sounds like a big gain for not much effort.

      2) There are billions of humans, and only dozens of videos on Youtube for the home repair, and a lot of those videos were motivated by advertising revenue.

    • Murphy says:

      People seem to vary.

      People love to teach when their own position is secure.

      People hoard secrets when they’ve only got a marginal advantage over the people around them.

      • albatross11 says:

        Yeah, I live in a world that’s open enough that I don’t expect teaching someone else what I know to make me worse off. But most of the past and a fair bit of the present wasn’t so much like that. One result is that a lot of knowledge was lost, because I would only tell it to my sons and nephews, and maybe none of them were quite bright enough to get it.

  20. cheerup_on_paincakes says:

    Scott, it’s Joseph Henrich, not Heinrich.

    Also looking forward to where you’re going with the sequence. The repost made me paranoid that you’ll be trolling us and for a few posts, make us believe something just to prove the point and end with ALL OF THIS IS LIES, but it seems that we’re making a point of “Intuition and tradition is important. Don’t go for ‘blind’ rationality” instead. Looking forward to more.

  21. Jack V says:

    Huh. Now you explain that, it seems obviously right.

    In fact, I’ve often thought something a bit similar about national culture, or institutional culture. Not that building a culture where, e.g., everyone cleans up after themselves (either their code or their coffee cups), is hard because we don’t know what step would be worthwhile, it’s hard because no-one feels it’s worth it unless everyone does. But it still means, you need to slowly adopt the desirable culture over time, and if it’s destroyed it’s hard to get back. Examples include:

    * Politicians who have sensible politicians, not only populism, and a willingness to compromise, and voters who vote for people who do that
    * A culture where no-one smokes/drink-drives/litters
    * A company where “good practices” are widespread, either in coding carefully at the expense of speed, or of inculcating a welcoming culture in a high street shop, etc

    • Incurian says:

      Huh. Now you explain that, it seems obviously right

      I have a heuristic that whenever I find myself saying “I’m sure” in response to a question (especially in regards to logistics or coordination – “Does John know he was supposed to fill up the gas tank?” “I’m sure he did.”) that I should double check on it because “I’m sure” means “I don’t know but I’m too lazy to check,” at least for me.

      I’m considering adding “seems obviously correct” to my list of phrases that signal me to dig deeper… not that “things seeming correct signals something is incorrect” but that particular phrase may signal I’ve latched on to some epistemic opiate.

    • Quideck says:

      Your comment on Institutional Culture and the difficulty of regaining traditions and modes of operation once they are lost made me want to chime in about the company I currently work at.

      I work for a company with ~$1Billion in revenue and over 60 plants worldwide. However, most of these plants were acquired through purchases over the past few decades rather than new constructions by the company.

      We are finally at the point (or it looks like to me – I’m a 20-something schmuck who for some reason gets to argue with VPs occasionally, not one of the actual policy-drivers) where Corporate wants to build one culture across the entire company to streamline operations and make Corporate decision-making more effective. Our new COO seems like a legitimate genius to me (not that I have good metrics to judge – just from a sheer force-of-personality/Elizer-10,000-year-old-vampire sense he bowled me over in a way only Nobel Laureates and their peers have), and so I am hopeful that this process will go well.

      But Damn, if the growing pains are not difficult. I will be leaving the company shortly, and there are 40-year veterans of the facility that are accelerating their retirement because of the new management and expectations. Our facility is more profitable than it has been in years (which is one of the key datapoints convincing me management acumen is a real thing – I don’t know exactly what our new plant manager did, but shipments and profits flipped like a switch a month or two after he walked in the door), but most everybody I speak to everyday is at least a little bit pissed off by the general environment. Either their boss is bugging them about a bullshit metric because his boss bugged him, or a new change is only being enforced on day shift, or the new project being rolled out didn’t take into consideration the layout of his machining cell, or…

      And I think the root cause is something that Jack V pointed out: “it’s hard because no-one feels it’s worth it unless everyone does”.

      I do not think anybody I speak to thinks our new leaner policies are bunk. I think they are just burned because they’ve heard many Exciting Management Strategies in the past, and they just do not foresee their local leadership being able to execute the new strategies. The facility has operated in its own job-shoppy way for so long that they cannot believe our local leadership will really be able to change, no matter what a genius I think our new corporate overlord may be.

      Sorry for the wall of text – you just helped me more clearly articulate some of the frustrations I have been feeling at the start of my career. And I think you highlighted a key piece of institutional effectiveness: establishing a consensus-reality, so that everybody knows everybody else will also be following the same rules you are. Short of multi-generation electric shocks (thinking of some monkey study where they successfully established a taboo in a group by shocking them), I think you need a real leader-of-people to do this consensus-building. And as you said , it is shockingly hard to rebuild a quality culture once its dead.

      • deciusbrutus says:

        Those are symptoms of several things: It could be that middle management doesn’t have the culture that upper management is trying to impose, and so they are in good faith trying to impose a half-breed culture downward; it could be that labor or frontline management is resisting cultural change and implementing a half-breed culture, or it could be both.

        It could also be that the culture coming down from on high is less than idea in some areas, or it could simply be that the process of changing culture will require some attrition of employees.

        Changing a culture is a very difficult and painful process, especially if you can’t kill everyone.

      • albatross11 says:

        I think it’s important to realize that cultural dynamics can be quite sticky, and you can definitely get stuck in suboptimal equilibria. One example of this is having a society where bribery is rare vs one where bribery is commonplace–once you’re in one equilibrium as a society, it’s *really hard* to shift to the other–everyone’s expectations are built up around always/never paying a bribe.

  22. snmlp says:

    In fact, some groups (most notably the aboriginal Tasmanians) seem to have lost the ability to make fire, and never rediscovered it.

    Superficial googling makes me question the aboriginal Tasmanians example:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aboriginal_Tasmanians#Use_of_fire
    https://sci-hub.tw/10.2307/24046786

    • stiltskin says:

      The myth is based on
      A) no one ever saw them do it
      B) in Tasmania men carried the fire sticks and on the mainland women and children carried the fire sticks, leading settlers to believe they were more precious on Tasmania and therefore they couldn’t make fire

      Except
      A) there are contemporary accounts of Tasmanian’s fire making methods, these are in your links, among others.
      B) not sure how you get to ‘they can’t make fire’ from men carrying the fire sticks

      This is one of myths that is able to persist because Australian Aboriginal culture was so thoroughly decimated by disease, massacres, being split up and having their land and children stolen over generations means that so much was lost so quickly their are few records or even oral accounts of Some people in some areas, particularly Tasmania. As the cultures have been broken up there is little opportunity to ask or speak to the truth of of something like this.

      We are repeating stories that a few people with little contact with or respect for Aboriginal people, with an extremely vested interest in making them seem as primitive as possible told hundreds of years ago and were contradicted at the time. And then use those stories to say something ‘universal’ about humanity.

      Fire is central to Australian Aboriginal land management, cooking and spiritual practise. The idea that a group lost the ability to make it should strike anyone as suspect, not even taking into account how cold Tasmania is compared to the rest of Australia. This story comes up a lot when we talk about the atrocities Aboriginals have endured over that last century and what kind of reparations are required. Seems like we have a vested interest in keeping it alive, too.

      NB I don’t want to give the impression here that Aboriginal culture has been wiped out. They are still here, they are a living people, with a living dynamic culture. But so much has been lost and stolen, particularly in Tasmania.

  23. I’d been hoping you would review and write about that book. I found it fascinating in a lot of ways including some you didn’t have space to go into here and I hope many other people will read it. This book really seems like a poster child for the idea that it’s a good idea to have people working across disciplines. Joseph Henrich is an aerospace engineer as well as an anthropologist and to me that many of the insights he had would come much more easily to someone with a background in engineering.

    There’s actually a way in which you can read this book as a pushback against Seeing like a State. It’s very hard to make changes when circumstances aren’t legible. In some ways Europeans lucked out in that their primary crop, wheat, required processing where the purpose of the various steps was entirely legible rendering improvements in milling much more straightforward than improvements in manioc processing would be. So it seems like improvements in legibility might have long run benefits even if they also cause short term trouble. It’s sort of an explore/exploit tradeoff.

    There’s a great deal of human nature pushing towards conservatism but we Westerners have a lot of cultural narratives pushing us to be more risk-taking than would be strictly in accord with human nature. Tales of successful revolutionaries and inventors and so forth. People who start new companies fail about 90% of the time but nobody ever thinks failure will happen to them, with businesses or new innovations or whathaveyou. This risk taking might be bad for the individual doing it but overall it seems to be quite good for society so thank goodness for misplaced optimism.

    • Oh, and it seems like technological civilization seems to be different people spending their lives cramming different bodies of knowledge into their heads and all working together to create the miracles around us. That sort of suggests that population and population density might be critical limits on how sophisticated the technology of a civilization can be.

    • Tenacious D says:

      Interesting point about the explore/exploit trade off.

    • Murphy says:

      People who start new companies fail about 90% of the time

      This is apparently a myth.

      it’s gotten by making a list of new companies and seeing which exist X time later.

      But many companies set up for a specific event , like a Ltd Company set up for a festival.

      Many are bought up.

      Many are folded in an orderly fashion.

      It’s a stat beloved by entrepreneur types because it implies that they took big risks, thus deserve huge rewards and must be part of the tiny minority of the most competent.

      When excluding such the reality: 16% failed after 5-7 years

      • deciusbrutus says:

        Why is “folded in an orderly fashion” not counted as a failure? And the 16% is specifically tech companies, not companies in general.

        • Simon_Jester says:

          If you created the corporation to manage a festival, and then fold it up when the festival’s over, the fact that the corporation no longer exists doesn’t constitute a failure.

          “It’s a feature, not a bug…”

  24. Radu Floricica says:

    In the same series you can probably include The Cultural Animal by Baumeister. It’s been a while since I read it and it’s a thick book, but as far as I remember the central theses is that neither culture nor genetics is solely responsible for the homo sapiens success, but the moment (some 100k years ago) when they started to co-evolve with each other.

  25. AlphaGamma says:

    Sometimes important events only happen once in a generation. Heinrich tells the story of an Australian aboriginal tribe facing a massive drought. Nobody knew what to do except Paralji, the tribe’s oldest man, who had lived through the last massive drought and remembered where his own elders had told him to find the last-resort waterholes.

    Reminds me of a paper I saw on the locations of villages in the floodplain of the Vltava river in Central Europe. It seems that information as to precisely which areas were likely to flood did not survive the deaths of the last eyewitnesses of extreme floods- people rebuilt further from water immediately after the flood, but more than about 50 years post-flood villages were being established in areas that ha been flooded.

  26. mbeaver says:

    A European explorer does not reason the same way an indigenous hunter gatherer would. The Inuit had No Aristotle, no Greek heritage, no tradition of reasoning.
    I think to preserve a rationalist view of the origin of human technology you have to accept different logics for different cultures.

    • eric23 says:

      Do you think an aboriginal Australian, transported to Canada, would do better than the Europeans?

    • Nav says:

      Arguably, the Greek heritage of reasoning is a cultural tradition, a solution to the problem of “what do you do in times of immense material plenty?” (the Greek peninsula is one of the world’s regions most friendly to human survival). It’s sort-of a transformation of excess human energy, marking a shift from what Hannah Arendt calls “labor”–that which is required to maintain life–into what she calls “work”: creations designed for cultural immortality. Keep in mind that those Greeks who used reason extensively were also those most shielded from labor; citizens in Greek cities often owned slaves who attended to their material needs. Reason was seen as divine and beyond the realm of Man (cf. Plato’s Cave).

      So, the goal of reason wasn’t so much to “keep people alive” (which appears to be the goal of technology in Scott’s piece), but to provide a useful domain of activity separated from the labor of putting food on the table, in which people can meaningfully use their time and can create lasting works (consider the nature of mathematics research, for example). The fact that reason can be utilized as a tool for keeping people alive seems a deeply modern conceit.

  27. JPNunez says:

    What was the showstopper for the people in Inuit territory to have hunted caribou, if the Inuit around them did it as step 1 of their seal hunting technique?

  28. VirgilKurkjian says:

    Probably many modern institutions are more evolved than we might recognize. Most scientists don’t really understand how science works, and maybe sometimes that’s a good thing. Or your favorite example, Scott, of the medical system.

  29. Murphy says:

    I have a few major problems with this.

    First, it seems to classify basically everything as culture. Every piece of information, every invention, every iota of understanding. It declares it all “culture.”

    Second.

    Heinrich discusses pregnancy taboos in Fiji; pregnant women are banned from eating sharks. Sure enough, these sharks contain chemicals that can cause birth defects.

    This has too many degrees of freedom. How many expensive taboos did they have where nobody was able to find any coherent reason for them? It reminds me of people pointing to every random taboo in the bible and grasping at any justification they can come up with for it.

    If you have a thousand random taboos and for each one you explore a thousand possible hypothesis for how it could provide a benefit (and zero hypothesis for how it could be causing a disadvantage, malnourishment etc) then you’re gonna always find something so that you can say “See! all these taboos have logical and useful results!!!!”

    It’s like that website a user here was posting a while back trying to claim that the book of mormon was obviously true (obvious to any rational person) because look look look following vague directions with millions of degrees of freedom in a search space the size of the middle east…. people were able to find things that nominally fit descriptions.

    By the broad-broad-broad-as-the-ocean-broad-as-dreams definition of culture we could talk about the history of cryptography in terms of culture. For hundreds of years people thought that Vigenère cipher was basically unbreakable. So much so that the catholic church with a few codebreakers cable to break it were able to convince people that they were getting secret tips from God based on their crypto work.

    A lot of the very smartest people in history: if they’d been born in 1600 and they were locked in a room with a message they had to crack with a 15 character key and told they had 3 days to crack it or die… they would die.

    (exception john von neumann would probably look at it for 30 seconds then launch into a
    lecture on the best methods of breaking the code, even having never heard of a Vigenère cipher before that day)

    Because smart doesn’t mean lightening-fast miracle worker.

    Much like explorers who get stuck on some remote island with a couple weeks worth of food.

    So by his measure intelligence would be worthless.

    Because now by means of “culture” any somewhat bright 13 year old can crack a Vigenère cypher without much difficulty because there are how-to’s, *cough* I-mean-“culture”, telling them how…

    So clearly smart people are irrelevant to cryptography!

    But of course we know that’s bollox.

    Without a few very very smart people to figure out a trick no amount of “culture” will ever substitute.

  30. bean says:

    I wonder how much of “explorers starving to death” is selection bias. Yes, it happened, but you have counterexamples like Alexander Selkirk who managed to live off unfamiliar land quite successfully. Yes, the native methods are very heavily optimized, but in most cases, worse methods just mean you have to spend more time and effort hunting. (And remember how much leisure hunter-gatherers have.) Yes, there are exceptions, like manioc and seal-hunting, and there’s a reason that the section on eating plants in most survival manuals has one word: Don’t. But basic traps and the like can be done anywhere, and most people of that age should have the skills for them.

    • Murphy says:

      First rule of explorer club: if you’re traveling with Tom Crean and he so much as says “Oh i’ve gotta pop back in for my keys” or “I’ve gotta tie my shoes, you go on ahead” you stay with him because that is the only way you are going to survive.

    • JPNunez says:

      Well, Selkirk got stranded in an uninhabited island, so animals had not learned/evolved to avoid hunters; he also had sheep, and did not try to eat whatever poisonous tubers he had on hand.

    • John Schilling says:

      Selkirk, and Crean, brought steel knives and guns. Guns are a really huge advantage for a hunter-gatherer, and good knives count for a lot. Almost certainly enough to make up for suboptimal local technique during the early learn-or-die stage.

      And I’m going to guess that neither Selkirk nor Crean could have built a working gun from scratch, nor probably even if you marooned them in a contemporary gunsmith’s shop, so one more point for culture.

    • quaelegit says:

      My first thought too. And for stories of more successful survivalists, I’d count the Lykovs.

      I read through Wikipedia’s page on castaways as a first pass check. There are definitely more failures than successes, and if you discount “rescued after a few months or years” then there’s very few successes. But even if success if very rare, well, prehistory is really long, so by Fermi-paradox-style-reasoning it makes sense that we’d eventually figure out how to live almost everywhere. (Also these castaway situations are biased towards the harshest possible environments — people who washed up in easy-to-live places were found by the groups already living there so they don’t make it onto this list.)

    • albatross11 says:

      My impression is that eating the muscle of large land animals and birds is usually pretty safe as a strategy for feeding yourself. Also, most kinds of fruit want to be eaten and so aren’t trying to poison you, but that’s not 100%. When you’re at the ragged edge of starvation and can’t find enough calories to get by using safe foods, that’s when you either figure out which plants will feed you or die of liver failure because that one kind of mushroom you found looked a lot like a kind you were able to eat back home on another continent.

  31. deciusbrutus says:

    Five hundred years hence, is someone going to analyze the college education system and point out that the wasted effort and time that we all can see produced some benefit akin to preventing chronic cyanide poisoning?

    Are they going to be able to do the same with other complex wasteful rituals, like primary elections and medical billing?

    Or do humans create lots of random wasteful rituals and occasionally hit upon one that removes poison from food, and then every group that doesn’t follow the one that removes poison from food dies while the harmless ones that just paint doors with blood continue?

    And almost all of the very smart people who tried to figure out how to hunt arctic seals died. The Inuit are the descendants of the few or one person who did figure it out. Put a bunch of literal modern engineers in a situation where they have to have to make a steam engine out of rocks and clay and see how many of them can even make a smelter, much less refine any metal- not because they can’t tell you in moderate detail HOW to do so, but because moderate detail is insufficient to do things on the scale of 1st century metalworking.

    • JPNunez says:

      Complex medical billing has its reasons but it is not the best interest of the patient, tho.

    • Randy M says:

      Or do humans create lots of random wasteful rituals and occasionally hit upon one that removes poison from food, and then every group that doesn’t follow the one that removes poison from food dies while the harmless ones that just paint doors with blood continue?

      The phrase cultural evolution strongly implies that they do.
      With omnipotence, you could prune the bush of cultural practices of it’s deadwood down to a slender stalk of useful behaviors, but with hubris you are likely to sever yourself from the roots.

      • deciusbrutus says:

        The cultural mutation rate has to be high enough to create complex cyanide-reducing behavior and low enough to not disrupt it.

        I find it more plausible that some genius somehow discovered a way to test for cyanide, did a bunch of science, found a way to prepare nonfood that actually removed the poison, taught everyone how to do it, and then died and the story was eventually forgotten while the recipe remained.

        What is killed fairly rapidly by manioc that has been mostly, but not fully, treated by the traditional process?

      • albatross11 says:

        ISTR (either from this book or from _The 10,000 Year Revolution_) that it’s not uncommon for small tribes to lose critical knowledge–sort-of analogous to the way that neutral drift can get rid of a useful gene in a small population. There was some eskimo band that had a plague come through and all the people who knew how to make bows died off, and so they just didn’t have bows. (When they later ran into a new tribe that hadn’t forgotten how to make bows, this went badly for them.)

  32. Spookykou says:

    So the obvious takeaway here is that I should start paying more attention to the Kardashians or I might get sick and die in twenty years.

  33. Murphy says:

    Humans are persistence hunters: they cannot run as fast as gazelles, but they can keep running for longer than gazelles (or almost anything else).

    http://www.whateverydogdeserves.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/husky-meme-marathon.jpg

    First thing that comes to mind… huskies can run something like 10 hours a day for days on end. Their standard pace is about twice the speed of a human endurance runner.

    • AlphaGamma says:

      I’ve heard that the only species that can maintain a faster pace than humans on foot over long distances are camels and wolves (including the more wolf-like dog breeds).

    • Ketil says:

      Several predators do this, I believe wolves and wolverines, for instance. I guess a predator has to be better at something than their prey – sneaking up, fast sprints, or wearing the prey out over time – while the prey needs to be pretty good at everything to have a chance of surviving different predators. I like the idea that our evolution is linked to water-carrying ability, but I’m not sure we have known how to carry water for long enough to substantially affect evolution.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      I believe humans are hot weather persistence hunters while wolves are cold weather persistence hunters.

      Can we learn something about human nature by looking at what people do for fun. We’re able to do persistence hunting, but people don’t seem to do it recreationally.

      Recreational hunter seems to involve using missile weapons and (frequently) help from animals.

      People also like striking from ambush, like deer blinds. I would include fishing as a sort of ambush hunting.

      • Murphy says:

        I remember seeing an article on the energy budgets involved in persistence hunting: basically it’s a terrible terrible way to hunt for calories and is only occasionally done by tribes for ritual stuff.

      • vV_Vv says:

        I believe humans are hot weather persistence hunters while wolves are cold weather persistence hunters.

        African wild dogs, jackals, hyenas and lions are all hot weather persistence hunters though, and yet they are covered in fur, cool primarily by panting rather than sweating and definitely don’t carry water in waterskins.

        • Spookykou says:

          African wild dogs, jackals, hyenas and lions are all hot weather persistence hunters though

          I have heard about African wild dogs being persistence hunters, but I’ve never seen anything saying that lions also hunted that way? Oddly, as an avid nature documentary fan, thinking back on it I can’t remember ever seeing anything about how hyenas hunt, just stuff about them scavenging. Any sources you could point me towards would be appreciated.

      • Dan L says:

        Can we learn something about human nature by looking at what people do for fun. We’re able to do persistence hunting, but people don’t seem to do it recreationally.

        Look at the skills used rather than the final result, and it’s clear that persistence hunting in various flavors is one of the most popular activities in the world. How many people play sports fundamentally based on endurance running?

        • Matt M says:

          Yeah, my first thought in reading this was something like “What is an ultramarathon if not persistence hunting, without the final step where the thing you’ve been chasing falls down dead?”

          • Dan L says:

            the final step where the thing you’ve been chasing falls down dead

            The real reason we shouldn’t push back on faking injury in soccer

          • Matt M says:

            It’s not particularly popular, but the biathlon also comes to mind as a sport that is basically a significant test of aerobic endurance, interrupted by brief periods of having to accurately use a weapon.

        • bullseye says:

          A lot of sports involve sprinting instead, and sprinting is an exceptionally bad hunting strategy for humans. The mere existence of marathon running doesn’t convince me of much of anything, but the fact that we’re actually good at it compared to other animals might count for something.

        • Nancy Lebovitz says:

          I don’t think soccer is the same sort of thing as persistence hunting– there’s a lot more variety involved rather than the long grind.

    • Cliff says:

      Humans can essentially run 24 hours a day every day. Ultra marathons are much more popular than they would be if we had the physiology of dogs.

  34. 10240 says:

    They would have done some experiments, and found that a simpler process of boiling it worked just as well. They would have saved lots of time, maybe converted all their friends to the new and easier method. Twenty years later, they would have gotten sick and died, in a way so causally distant from their decision to change manioc processing methods that nobody would ever have been able to link the two together.

    I’m not sure. It sounds quite possible that, rather than the complicated process being accepted purely as a matter of an unexplained rule, every few generations there was a family or two who decided to use a simpler process, and the rest of the society would get to observe those families being cursed with many early deaths. Especially if simplifying the manioc process was the only thing they did differently from the other families.

    One of the most important parts of any culture – more important than the techniques for hunting seals, more important than the techniques for processing tubers – is techniques for making sure nobody ever questions tradition. Like the belief that anyone who doesn’t conform is probably a witch who should be cast out lest they bring destruction upon everybody.

    Why not observe them and see if they and their children die early, or have other serious problems? The cases where this produces useful information seem to be more common than ones where someone questioning tradition actually brings harm to many other people as well, rather than just to themselves, or perhaps their family, especially when it comes to dietary rules and such.

  35. vV_Vv says:

    There’s a monster at the end of this book. Humans evolved to transmit culture with high fidelity. And one of the biggest threats to transmitting culture with high fidelity was Reason. Our ancestors lived in Epistemic Hell, where they had to constantly rely on causally opaque processes with justifications that couldn’t possibly be true, and if they ever questioned them then they might die. Historically, Reason has been the villain of the human narrative, a corrosive force that tempts people away from adaptive behavior towards choices that “sounded good at the time”.

    This sounds too much one sided, though.

    Clearly the ability to infer general principles and reason mechanistically is an useful thing that humans were selected to do better than any other species: you are never going to invent an harpoon with a detachable tip made of caribou antler and a rear spike made of polar bear bone by a sequence of random mutations starting from a chimp stick tool, the search space is just too big to be explored randomly. Ditto for bow and arrows, the soapstone oil lamp, and so on.

    And after all, despite the initial setbacks, the descendants of the European explorers managed to strongly outperform all these traditional cultures, presumably owing to a greater meta-cultural or genetic tendency of the Europeans to reason systematically.

    Tradition and systematic reasoning interact, and you can fail by relying too much on one or the other. The optimal tradeoff is not obvious.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      So far as I know, we haven’t seen hunter-gatherer traditions evolve. We don’t know how much thought and theory innovators bring to the changes they make.

      It’s not just hunter-gatherers– how do cooking traditions evolve? In particular, how are the cooks thinking about the changes they make? I bet there’s a lot of tacit knowledge involved, but the changes aren’t random.

      • Buttle says:

        One might consider how mounted buffalo hunting evolved (rapidly) on the great plains of North America after the Spaniards lost track of some of their horses.

        • albatross11 says:

          Yeah, the American Indians seem to have *very* quickly adapted to horses, which suggests that hunter-gatherer tribes are capable of rapid adaptation. Though I wonder if the spread of disease also helped that along–if your existing culture has been wiped out by a 50% fatality rate among adults, maybe it’s easier to jump onto new strategies.

    • Jaskologist says:

      This is pretty much what Peterson is getting at when he talks about balancing order and chaos, and venturing out into the chaos to incorporate some of it into your ordered space.

      • jermo sapiens says:

        Precisely. And that is why we have both conservative and liberal temperaments. It is the competing values of respecting tradition and innovation which provide the needed balance between these forces, and which allow societies to remain adapted to their environment while also evolving to a changing environment.

        This is also why this is the most important post on this blog.

        As an aside, I like using political orientation to describe whether people are leftwing or rightwing. It’s a reference to sexual orientation, and the need to remember that like nobody chooses whether they’re gay or straight, nobody decides whether they’re left or right. And just like when someone talks about “choosing to be gay”, it’s pretty clear that person is repressing their homosexuality, when someone talks about “choosing to be conservative” (or liberal), that person holds their political views as a fashion statement more than an honestly held belief.

        My own view is that we actually evolved to produce both kinds of people, but I dont know how or why or if it’s even possible.

        • Dan L says:

          +1, I’m definitely going to steal that one about political orientation. There does seem to be a real heritable component.

          My own view is that we actually evolved to produce both kinds of people, but I dont know how or why or if it’s even possible.

          A friend of mine published a paper (Master’s thesis?) about how under certain conditions a species can exhibit a binary split in survival strategies in a stable way that resists speciation – I believe he used squirrels. I dunno if that could plausibly apply to humans as well, but I do own books from both Alinea and Jiro.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            a species can exhibit a binary split in survival strategies in a stable way that resists speciation

            that’s fascinating. i can see why that would be beneficial to the species as a whole. maybe this is the evolutionary origin of the left/right split. what’s also cool about the left/right split is how, not only does it provide a diversity of tactics, but the struggle between left and right (or chaos and order) is in itself beneficial.

        • Brassfjord says:

          I prefer to see what you call orientations as a matter of taste.

          You know what you like in food, music, politics, sexual images and so on. You seldom make a single conscious decision that you like these things, but I still think that you decide your tastes with many small (maybe sub-conscious) choices. There is also a possibility to deliberately change your taste (to an acquired taste) in all these fields, if you’re motivated to do so.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            I agree orientation is like taste, but not that they are decided. I never decided to dislike tomatoes, to be attracted to women, or to have be conservative politically. If I were required to change any of these things, it would be extremely difficult and I would have to pretend and it would be horrible.

            An acquired taste is also not a choice. Changing how you feel about certain things happens without a conscious decision. Trying something new is a conscious decision, but whether you enjoy it or not isn’t.

          • Brassfjord says:

            @jermo sapiens

            You say you never decided your tastes, but that’s because it’s never a single decision. Instead you decide to obey your parents or rebel, you decide what role models to have and what groups to fit in with and what you want to signal to others. All of these choices and many more, decide your taste.

            I don’t think anyone enjoys coffee or beer the first time they taste it, but since people want to fit in or look grown up, they keep trying it until they like it.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            All of these choices and many more, decide your taste.

            Even if that were true, it wouldnt make my taste in something a choice. If I could choose, I would choose to love everything and anything. I cant. I could pretend, but it would be a lie, and it would make my life a living hell.

            But it really doesnt follow from anything you’ve said that our choices determine your taste. Why do I hate tomatoes but my brother loves them and eats them like an apple (other than that he is a degenerate)?

            Similarly, if you chose your political opinions, you dont really hold them. They are probably just a way to signal your loyalty to your in-group.

          • Brassfjord says:

            You say you can’t love everything and anything, but have you really tried? It will take some willful changes in attitudes and a lot of practice ( = cognitive behavioral therapy) but I think it’s possible if you are motivated enough.

          • jermo sapiens says:

            @Brassfjord

            Are you suggesting conversion therapy can be used to turn gays straight? (or at least bisexual?)

            Be my guest, change your sexual orientation for a week and let me know how it goes.

          • Brassfjord says:

            That’s a door I don’t want to open, because it’s hard to close. It’s easier to learn to like something than to learn to dislike it.

            Do you mean that you can’t really change your mind about anything?

          • jermo sapiens says:

            Do you mean that you can’t really change your mind about anything?

            Of course not. I’ve changed my mind over countless things during my life. But somethings I cant change my mind over because I never really decided them in the first place.

            I cant change my mind over my sexual orientation. I cant change my mind over my political values, but I could change my mind over specific political issues based on new information and how that interacts with my political values.

  36. Enkidum says:

    Sounds like a book I need to read, though I don’t have any particularly insights to add at present. I took a course on mathematical models of social evolution with Henrich during grad school – nothing even remotely related to my work, but it was probably the single most interesting course I took. Nice guy, and a hell of a thinker.

  37. Jeff R says:

    Argh. I’ve had this book sitting on my coffee table for like 18 months now, unread except for the first chapter. I’m gonna skip this post and actually read the book first.

    By the way, the author did a tremendous podcast with Tyler Cowen’s a couple of years ago (part of the Conversations with Tyler series) that I can’t recommend highly enough. It’s what inspired me to buy the book in the first place. If you found this review interesting, definitely go check out the podcast.

  38. Quixote says:

    In the example given, westerners using reason and trying to be clever by cutting out steps in the preparation of corn cost potentially hundreds of thousands of needless deaths. Westerners being clever and using reason about the application of vaccines saved potentially hundreds of millions. I think the score still comes out comfortably in favor of Reason and I’ll keep using it, thank you very much.

    That said, this post does give me more of an emotional appreciation for the cultural evolutionary pressures that have evolved to make people who operate with internalized ancient meme sets less prone to apply reason to current situations. I had previously thought of this as being a more parasitic meme, where the meme both makes you do dumb things and makes you not questions doing dumb things. Seeing its symbiotic role is helpful.

  39. JohnBuridan says:

    Why do I find these stories about how cultural evolution creates tradition so satisfying? Maybe it is because my homo sapiens mind loves the Greeks and appreciates the Romans?

    I want this lesson to really sink in. Insofar as it has affected me, I think I am moving toward becoming an active promoter of some liberal traditionish outlook, especially in the realms of curriculum design and the study of history. I want transmission of Greco-Roman Culture and “American Founding Culture” to be a part of every child’s education in addition to the other cultures of the local demographic the school serves. Maybe I should write essays on this topic.

    Reason is a big risk, but reason is not just deconstructive and skeptical. Reason also allows us to test and fail until we find a working and enduring cultural tradition. It also allows us to apply the tradition to changing circumstances, like the Amish deciding which technologies to adopt. Deliberation and judgment is still essential in any community, and although we might not be able to get manioc right using “pure reason,” we can figure out a suitable punishment for the person who embezzled corn or killed his brother to get at his inheritance.

    My favorite speech in praise of Reason is the Chorus’ paean in Antigone which sings the wonder of Mankind. Not till now, though, have I noticed that it is not individual man, but the culture of man, which does the fantastic things here praised:

    Numberless wonders
    terrible wonders walk the world but none the match for man—
    that great wonder crossing the heaving gray sea,
    driven on by the blasts of winter
    on through breakers crashing left and right,
    holds his steady course
    and the oldest of the gods he wears away—
    the Earth, the immortal, the inexhaustible—
    as his plows go back and forth, year in, year out
    with the breed of stallions turning up the furrows.

    And the blithe, lightheaded race of birds he snares,
    the tribes of savage beasts, the life that swarms the depths—
    with one fling of his nets
    woven and coiled tight, he takes them all,
    man the skilled, the brilliant!

    He conquers all, taming with his techniques
    the prey that roams the cliffs and wild lairs,
    training the stallion, clamping the yoke across
    his shaggy neck, and the tireless mountain bull.

    And speech and thought, quick as the wind
    and the mood and mind for law that rules the city—
    all these he has taught himself
    and shelter from the arrows of the frost
    when there’s rough lodging under the cold clear sky
    and the shafts of lashing rain—
    ready, resourceful man!
    Never without resources
    never an impasse as he marches on the future—
    only Death, from Death alone he will find no rescue
    but from desperate plagues he has plotted his escapes.

    Man the master, ingenious past all measure
    past all dreams, the skills within his grasp—
    he forges on, now to destruction
    now again to greatness. When he weaves in
    the laws of the land, and the justice of the gods
    that binds his oaths together
    he and his city rise high—

  40. the verbiage ecstatic says:

    The details on how various cultures hunt and gather seem like strong (and not surprising) evidence that wilderness survival is a deep knowledge domain that can’t be independently reinvented by a single individual. It doesn’t seem like evidence at all that this knowledge domain was acquired by random cultural mutation versus rational efforts, unless there’s an unstated assumption that an Inuit hunter isn’t capable of rational thought. If you ask a first year physics student to come up with design specs for a super-collider, they’ll fail too: is that also evidence for “culture” (meaning, evidently, something beyond knowledge-sharing) being important to physics?

    Or maybe the actual point here is that accurate mental models of why techniques work aren’t necessary to apply the techniques. Which we can also find plenty of examples of in modern industrial civilization, but that doesn’t mean accurate mental models aren’t helpful for accelerating discovery of novel techniques.

    Basically, I think the tl;dr is that humans sit a top a vast edifice of knowledge assembled by previous generations, which I think is only surprising to someone who isn’t very introspective about their own epistemical habits.

    • Randy M says:

      That’s a good point; those educated victorians (or whoever) may have been able to come up with proper hunting techniques if they had been immersed in the knowledge of the environment for decades first.

  41. jermo sapiens says:

    So, if one did the common-sense thing and just boiled the high-cyanogenic manioc, everything would seem fine.

    This seems like an excellent demonstration of Chesterton’s fence if there ever was one. And a warning to progressives that all the changes they push for and achieve, with no obvious negative consequences after a few years, may not be as good as they seem to be right now.

    Another slot is for gender roles. By now we’ve all heard the stories of progressives who try to raise their children without any exposure to gender. Their failure has sometimes been taken as evidence that gender is hard-coded. But it can’t be quite that simple: some modern gender roles, like girls = pink, are far from obvious or universal. Instead, it looks like children have a hard-coded slot that gender roles go into, work hard to figure out what the local gender roles are (even if their parents are trying to confuse them), then latch onto them and don’t let go.

    I’m not sure that pink can be reasonably construed as a gender role. I’m even less sure, that the color pink had any real cultural significance to our distant ancestors. But I’m pretty sure that our distant ancestors had men do the hunting/war and the women take care of children and housework. What that means for the unfortunate caveperson with gender dysphoria, I’m not sure.

    • This seems like an excellent demonstration of Chesterton’s fence if there ever was one. And a warning to progressives that all the changes they push for and achieve, with no obvious negative consequences after a few years, may not be as good as they seem to be right now.

      Capitalism already done plowed over the fence. Good luck piecing together the wreckage to make a subpar facsimile of the old fence. Other options are to rationally and consciously investigate why the fence was there, and build an even better fence from scratch if the fence really was needed, or to clear away the debris and leave no fence there if it was not needed.

      In other words, I view the Enlightenment and its emphasis on rational human manipulation of society and its institutions not as an elective choice, but as a panicked adaption to the fact that “holy shit, there is a rampaging force called Capital that escaped from the basement of our local sorcerer’s apprentice and is wrecking fences left and right, and putting the fences back just the way they were, and even preserving the last few original fences just the way they were, with their ancient wood construction, will be damn near impossible. So either learn how to make steel fences that can resist the rampaging monster, or get rid of the fences if it turns out that the monster is doing us a favor.”

      Note that conservatives and liberals both view capitalism as something that can be tamed by the State (liberals) or by Culture (conservatives), but both of those are downstream from capitalism. The State and Culture are not “unmoved movers” that can exert a force of leverage on capitalism without themselves being already sullied/changed by capitalism in the first place.

      • jermo sapiens says:

        You might be right, I dont know. If by capitalism you mean the end of feudalism, I suppose capitalism was a very disruptive force. But you would need to give more details if you want your point to be well understood (by me anyways).

        • By capitalism, I mean a society satisfying the following conditions:
          1. People produce useful goods and services not for their own direct use, but for exchange as commodities
          2. Where the vast majority of people must produce their ability to work not for their own direct use solely in the household or family business, but for exchange (i.e. where most people’s ability to work is itself sold as a commodity).
          3. Where there exists meaningful competition on the world market in most sectors. (i.e., 95% of the entire world oil industry, and natural gas industry, and childcare industry, and hamburger industry, etc. are NOT controlled by one giant worldwide cartel).

          How is this disruptive?

          1. Money, an abstract account of social influence that can be redeemed on anonymous strangers, tends to replace the influence of “concrete” accounts of social influence that are specific to certain contexts, such as non-monetary covenants between concretely familiar individuals. Social relations become abstract. Why is this perceived as a problem?

          The simplest example: people sell sexual services for money. Once again, the abstract power of money overrides some people’s particular moral concerns against prostitution or pornography.

          The Nazis in particular had a problem with the abstractness of money, although they falsely thought the problem was with the abstractness of Jews rather than money. How did they get this idea? Imagine a poor German shows up in your village…even a poor former inhabitant of the village that the village would like to help extensively. But the village dare not help this inhabitant too extensively, lest they deplete their money for little abstract monetary advantage in return, lest they weaken themselves in the battle of capitalist competition. Then, the next day, a Jew shows up in your village. This Jew has done nothing for your village, made no personal connections to your village, done nothing to preserve and further your village’s cherished culture; the Jew is perceived as being “rootless,” without roots in your community. And yet, the Jew must be served, fawned over, provided accommodations and goods, and treated like royalty insofar as the Jew has money to pay for it (even if the Jew has very little money, providing any service at all to this “alien” element is seen as an imposition). And the village dare not rebel and use their own particular calculus for how they will treat the Jew, for that would put the village at a disadvantage in the battle of capitalist competition; the village would lose money on what they refused to sell to the Jew. Clearly this influence from the abstract power of money that compels the German village to serve this alien at all, and that will punish the German village and sap it of social power if they rebel, must be the result of some grand Jewish conspiracy enchaining the German people. (Of course, there is no such conspiracy; it is simply the abstract workings of the capitalist system). The Nazi hatred of Jews is simply a hatred of the abstract power of money over their own particular moral and community values that gets falsely assigned to the concrete figure of the Jew. This is just the most extreme example. But there are others as well.
          2. Owners of capital must constantly innovate, must seek to, all other things being equal (such as company morale), minimize both unit-labor costs (wages per hour) and labor costs (hours of labor required to produce a commodity). Social conflict and change are baked into this process. I could go on…

          • jermo sapiens says:

            Ok thanks for that. I had never seen the power of money portrayed in this way. I will need to reflect on that point.

          • baconbits9 says:

            2. Owners of capital must constantly innovate, must seek to, all other things being equal (such as company morale), minimize both unit-labor costs (wages per hour) and labor costs (hours of labor required to produce a commodity).

            Not really, capitalists can reduce the costs of other inputs, can create a new product, improve an old product etc, etc, etc.

            The simplest example: people sell sexual services for money. Once again, the abstract power of money overrides some people’s particular moral concerns against prostitution or pornography.

            What an unfortunate example as people have been exchanging sexual services since long before money got involved. Hence the moniker ‘the oldest profession’.

          • Hoopdawg says:

            people have been exchanging sexual services since long before money got involved.

            I believe that’s beside the point he’s making, which is that money override culture (specifically: an individual’s culturally-adopted objections to sexual activity). Sexual services in pre-money societies were culturally mediated, often ritualistic in nature. Then you can just exchange anything for a commodity and things get, well, commodified.

          • nameless1 says:

            But the third day a group of bandits show up, or tax collectors from the state accompanied by policemen, and they take things without even paying monetary compensation. Which is worse. And no matter how much money that Jew had, they Nazi government killed him. Force, government > money. Politics > economy. Hence politics, state > capitalism.

            And nothing bad happens to the village if they refuse it and fall behind in capitalist competition. They will just be poorer. One big fault I see in Marxism is ironically overestimating the efficiency of capitalist competition. Thinking the more efficient becomes quickly a big fish and eats the small fish. 150 years later it still did not happen. I live in Europe. There are large corporate grocery stores, but also small family ones. There are large corporate hairdresser, barber chains, but also small family ones. I think the US is a bit more efficient – harder to find family barber shops, hairdressers, more of them are corporate. But even that happened 150 years later. I know tons of people who work at businesses that should not exist in a very efficient market. They buy stuff from factories in China and sell it to shops in Europe. Why not the Chinese sell it to the shops? Dunno. The middle man just does not get cut out.

            So the village refuses the deal, and yet a bigger fish does not eat them. They will be just poorer. But if they refuse the tax man? Or the bandit? They have serious problems.

          • baconbits9 says:

            I believe that’s beside the point he’s making, which is that money override culture (specifically: an individual’s culturally-adopted objections to sexual activity). Sexual services in pre-money societies were culturally mediated, often ritualistic in nature. Then you can just exchange anything for a commodity and things get, well, commodified.

            This is just tautological then, before money nothing could be ‘sold’ as there wasn’t money, but I payed a girl a goat for a sexual act is part of the ‘culture’, as was the local lord demanding a tribute of young women, or the richest guys in the village having multiple wives.

            Claiming that money is what commodified sex is to ignore that prior to money it was people who were commodities. The abstraction of money reduced the commodification of people, not the other way around. It allowed people to give a portion of themselves and not their whole self, so while Marxists think its a shame that you have to sell yourself for money, they fail to understand that because money is fungible you can sell yourself for anything, rather than prior to money in which you had to sell yourself for the one thing being offered.

      • The State and Culture are not “unmoved movers” that can exert a force of leverage on capitalism without themselves being already sullied/changed by capitalism in the first place.

        Capitalism isn’t an “unmoved mover” either. Capitalism is dependent on private property, and private property is ultimately a law, and laws are governed by the state, and the state is governed by culture (among other things), which is governed by interactions between previous culture, the state, capitalism, biology, and geography (among other missing elements), turning the whole thing not into a neat hierarchy but a big tangle of elements that affect the element they are effected by, and so on. Every distinct worldview tries to claim that one of these factors is the ultimate hidden boss pulling the strings of the other factors.

        The (actually existing) socialist states of the 20th Century are also pretty strong evidence that the state and culture can radically alter (actually existing) capitalism.

      • nameless1 says:

        I don’t understand it. Yes I know it is Marx but I don’t understand it. I don’t understand the primacy of the economy i.e. capital. Why would the economy determine the political system. The state has guns. Capital has money. Why would money defeat guns? Guns defeating money seems more logical to me. I would say the political always has primacy. Politics recruits people who want power, capitalism recruits people who want money. The whole definition of power is that you can force other people to do what you want. Like give you money. Why would money win.

        Why would capitalism be so hard to tame. The state gives an order. The capitalist does not obey. The state puts him into prison. End of the story. Bribes? Bribes are illegal. If we include illegal things in the picture, it is easier for the state to just rob the capitalist. Or take the bribe but do nothing.

        Democracy may have features that gives power to capitalists. Someone gotta finance election advertisements. But capitalism evolved under monarchism and everybody including Marx saw it more linked with monarchism than with democracy. Everybody saw democracy as something that tends to tame capitalism. Most anti-capitalists supported moving from monarchism to capitalism.

        Tell me – why would it have been hard for kings to tame capitalism? They give an order. If the capitalist disobeys, prison. Or execution.

        I don’t understand the primacy of the economical. Windmills sure as hell did not create feudalism. Invading armies, professional soldier elites and the states they created created feudalism. Sure the steam mill did not create capitalism. Sure the steam mill was not more powerful than the musket or the gallows.

        I don’t see no reason why the economic aspect of a society would be No. 1. Sure it is power. Power from the barrel of a gun. Power of many rifles coordinated. The state.

        • liate says:

          Why would money defeat guns?

          How do you get guns or ammunition without money?

          Tell me – why would it have been hard for kings to tame capitalism? They give an order. If the capitalist disobeys, prison. Or execution.

          How are a king’s orders carried out? It’s presumably not by the king arresting the capitalist personally and throwing him in jail. Even if you assume the king can just threaten people into his military forces (with what, though? With themselves?), an army or police force is going to be rather ineffective without food or weapons or armor, which require either already controlling access to them (in which case you already have economic power / money) or money. Force isn’t an option because you don’t have force yet.

          Besides, if you piss off enough of the capitalists, they can buy their own armies to get you to stop or replace you. Feudal nobility are basically just entrenched rich people who use their money to keep their money, via armies.

          I don’t see no reason why the economic aspect of a society would be No. 1. Sure it is power. Power from the barrel of a gun. Power of many rifles coordinated. The state.
          It’s hard to coordinate many rifles without either owning many rifles (and commanding enough people to use said rifles) already, in which you already effectively have economic power, or having enough economic power to get said many rifles to coordinate.

          • John Schilling says:

            Why would money defeat guns?

            How do you get guns or ammunition without money?

            Show up with a loaded gun at the Smith & Wesson factory and say “I have a loaded gun, you have a crate of just-manufactured guns and no bulllets, so gimme”. Then show up with a loaded gun at an ammunition factory…

            The more important question is whether you can get good soldiers without money. Or whether you can get good soldiers with just money.

          • nameless1 says:

            >How do you get guns or ammunition without money?

            Just order them made. Point the gun you already have at the gun-maker.

            > Feudal nobility are basically just entrenched rich people who use their money to keep their money, via armies.

            I don’t see any evidence for it. They were officers in conquering armies, turned into a state administration.

            But I appreciate your point that there has to be an economic basis behind an army. My view would be that it is a mutual, self-reinforcing process. Some dude in the Dark Ages robs loot with a self-made spear. Has money, buys better arms from a blacksmith. They band together, invade a country, become nobility. Use the existing weapons to order more weapons made. Or use existing weapons to force peasants to pay up, buy more weapons.

            There has to be an economic base, yes, but that does not have primacy, rather it is a mutually reinforcing process.

            “Rich” is not a good way to explain medieval nobility. That money came from armed conquest and armed rule of a state that supported it. Nobility were officers turned into state administrators, “private army” is another bad way to express it. Rather, it is that their state administration positions became hereditary once the royal power got weaker. Originally they were appointed by the king to recruit and maintain armies for the king.

            I see no evidence for the primacy of the economic. Property rights are a creation of the state. Yes, libertarian homesteadism is just as bullshit as Marxism IMHO. Property rights are the state say “This belongs to that guy and if you take it I well send armed policemen to throw you into jail. Or if you try to challenge it in a legal way, the judge will say it is his stuff.”

            I can also give a point that brute-force ruling does not really work that well. But in this case I would point to a third class: priests, intellectuals, who create a legitimizing myth for power. Kings, nobility were basically stationary bandits. The big trick is convincing the peasants not only to not try to rebel, but even join the king’s army and fight for him. This is where the priesthood, intellectuals come into play. Culture-making, kind of.

            It is possible that capitalism is a strong force in a democracy because someone has to finance election campaigns, although it does not seem to be such a strong force in Sweden. But non-democratic systems, Hitler, Stalin and the like seemed to have tamed it easily. Hitler basically ordered them around. Stalin outright took their factories. Both had legitimizing myths made by intellectuals.

            America has many kinds of legitimizing myths. Some are anti-capitalist i.e. Rawlsian egalitarianism. Some are openly pro-capitalist like rags to riches and bootstraps. Some are indirectly pro-capitalist by being anti-statist, the don’t tread on me kind.

          • Ariel Ben-Yehuda says:

            > Show up with a loaded gun at the Smith & Wesson factory and say “I have a loaded gun, you have a crate of just-manufactured guns and no bulllets, so gimme”. Then show up with a loaded gun at an ammunition factory…

            Cool. You just got yourself a new crate of guns. In all probability, most key people in the factory won’t be able to escape fast enough that you might get yourself more crates of guns, but they will probably be too afraid to make any major upgrades to the factory. And when the gun-making machines made halfway across the world wear out, you’ll have a hard time getting new ones.

            The nice thing with money is that you can use it to pay for things from fortified places (less so in the modern era), distant places, or for things that don’t exist yet. It’s far more inefficient to get things from these using power.

  42. Randy M says:

    This was a great read. Credit to you and the author.

    One minor implication that jumped out at me is when parents will ask how they can get their child to eat vegetables, I wonder in how many of those cases it is because the child has never seen the parent eat the vegetable in question. We’ve never really had this problem, possibly because we’ve always eaten what and when our kids do. And other parents will complain that their kids eat the good food they see ours eat, but not the food they are served at home.

  43. vV_Vv says:

    And humans are consumate tool users. In some cases, we evolved in order to use tools better; our hands outclass those of any other ape in terms of finesse. In other cases, we devolved systems that were no longer necessary once tools took over. We are vastly weaker than any other ape.

    There is a trade off between strength and accuracy, which depends on things like muscle attachment points.

    – I didn’t eat the cricket. There seems to be some process where a child’s brain learns what is and isn’t locally edible, then hard-codes it against future change.

    (Or so they say; I’ve never been able to eat shrimp either.)

    I thought that shrimps were indeed forbidden by kashrut.

    Btw, does anybody here know what crickets taste like? Do they taste like shrimp?

    • Enkidum says:

      In my fairly limited experience (crickets, cicadas, and I think silkworm cocoons, all only a couple of times), insects in general have a very mild flavour, and tend to taste of whatever they’re cooked with. The texture tends to be what many westerners find unpalatable, aside from the fact that they’re eating bugs.

    • Tenacious D says:

      Cricket protein bars/powder are growing in popularity. I’ve tried the former and thought it had a bit of an earthy taste, but not a strong one. Most of the flavour came from the other ingredients in the bar. I haven’t tried whole crickets though.

  44. Orpheon says:

    Another slot is for gender roles. By now we’ve all heard the stories of progressives who try to raise their children without any exposure to gender.

    I haven’t, and this sounds really interesting. Does anyone have recommended writeups?

  45. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    It was a bit of a shock to me to realize there is no such thing as dressing like a woman. There’s just dressing like a woman of a particular culture. The same applies to men, of course, but I’m giving you my initial revelation.

    I find myself twitching at pro-tradition arguments because anti-Semitism is very traditional. Unnerving thought– maybe some hostility to Jews is because Jews are more rational than most people (all that arguing about application of Jewish law gets transferred to some other parts of life) and rationality is risky.

    Possibly relevant from a facebook discussion about looking Jewish. I’ll post more of it if anyone cares.

    Jack Page It’s not just looks. Someone asked me, “Are you Jewish?”
    We had worked together on a project designing an alternative high school organization. I said, “I don’t happen to be, but why do you think so?”
    She said, “You think Jewish.”
    I said, “Tell me more about that.”
    She said, “You think about how the organization is going to affect the person working in it.”
    One of the two finest compliments I’ve ever received.
    She went on to become a college president.

    • Randy M says:

      I find myself twitching at pro-tradition arguments because anti-Semitism is very traditional.

      But isn’t Jewish culture also very pro-tradition?

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        “But isn’t Jewish culture also very pro-tradition?”

        Some parts of it still are.

        You might think of the situation as Jews tending to put stress on other people’s traditions.

        • Jaskologist says:

          Your comment sparked a thought which ties all this together in the worst possible way.

          If it is rational to precommit *not* to be convinced by a super-intelligence, then it is similarly rational to at least view with suspicion anything told you by somebody more intelligent. Really, you should distrust anybody smarter than you, in proportion to the gap between the two of you.

          +

          A certain ethnic subgroup has average IQs about a standard deviation higher than the surrounding population.

          Then it might indeed be rational and even expected for the larger group to develop a “tradition” of viewing the subgroup with suspicion, as a defense against their superior argumentation skills.

          Indeed, we might even expect the subgroup itself to become especially pro-tradition, to guard against their own recurring crops of snot-nosed kids who not only think they’re smarter than everyone else, but really are.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        “But isn’t Jewish culture also very pro-tradition?”

        While some people are pro (or anti) tradition in general, I think people are mostly in favor of their *own* traditions.

    • Cliff says:

      Nancy:

      I’m sure that Hispanics are at maximum risk now. If there’s a major Islamist terror attack in the US, Muslims are moved to the top of the list.

      Pregnant and potentially pregnant women are on the list. Homoseuxl and trans people are on the list. Jews are on the list. I’m not sure of the ranking.

      I found this comment interesting. Have there been many “hate crimes” committed against Hispanics? It also seems a strange way to characterize pro-life people, of whom many are pregnant or potentially pregnant women.

  46. Alex Zavoluk says:

    Some of these processes sound so complicated than I’m very confused as to how they were ever discovered. How could an ancient culture recognize that putting a huge amount of effort into processing food was worthwhile, if the direct effects were not seen for twenty years? How could such a process even be invented in the first place, by people who couldn’t possibly know what cyanide was? Are there genes for “easily convinced that some complicated ritual is necessary for properly preparing food,” where people will literally try random ideas (maybe they appear in dreams?) and most of those ideas will be useless or counterproductive, but a handful will work, and the tribes with those ideas will out-compete the more “reasonable” ones as well as the unlucky ones?

    • Bugmaster says:

      I think you might be giving ancient cultures too little credits. Sure, they could’ve stumbled onto these complicated techniques by chance, or through a trick of genetics. However, it is more likely that someone in that culture staged a bunch of experiments (or observed the results of inadvertent experiments), and figured out the answer. These people didn’t know nearly as much as we do today, but that doesn’t mean they were stupid (modulo some occasional malnutrition).

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      I’m not saying it was aliens…

      • Alex Zavoluk says:

        You joke but I seriously considered the possibility that such complex processes used by ancient peoples actually constituted evidence that aliens had planted information here so that we would be more likely to survive for… reasons.

        • vV_Vv says:

          And how did these aliens manage to develop past their hunter-gatherer stage? Is it aliens all the way down?

          • Randy M says:

            Like any good sci-fi series, it ends with time travel.

          • Jaskologist says:

            This is where Aquinas’ much, much less well-known sixth way came from:

            1. We find in society complex processes that could not have been created in an iterated fashion.
            2. Such processes require aliens to teach them to humans.
            3. But the aliens themselves need other aliens to teach them.
            4. The sequence of aliens cannot extend ad infinitum.
            5. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first alien, educated by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I think that’s just a restatement of the second way. Still lol’d though. Everybody loves an “Aquinas and aliens” joke.

          • Alex Zavoluk says:

            Maybe it took them a lot longer, or their planet or biology was more conducive to simpler methods of preparing food and making tools.

            edit: I wonder to what extent our biology has evolved to take advantage of or alongside tool-use, cooking, preparing of food, etc, instead of simply enabling it.

    • This reminds me of the idea of getting reinforcement learning AIs to master old NES games. For some games, it is easy because there is something like a score counter that shows the AI when it has achieved incremental progress towards the final goal. But with other games, there is no score counter, no x,y coordinate position on the level scroll, or any other simple variable that can demonstrate progress towards the goal, so the only way the AI will ever get reinforcement towards the goal of the game is if it happens to do all of the exact steps by accident that are needed to beat the game in one fell swoop. And AI reinforcement learning struggles with these games.

      Ditto for any complicated, multi-step human cultural innovation that will not have any visible signs of efficacy for 20+ years, and where the innovation does not show any progress towards the desired effect unless every single step is taken without variation for those 20+ years. So I find it implausible that there was not at least some conscious understanding involved in these cultural changes. It could not have been all blind trial-and-cultural-selection.

      • Alex Zavoluk says:

        That was my thought, as well. In order for evolution to work, there would have to be some benefit to each intermediate step. And we do see some of that: Partial processing of manioc turns it from totally inedible to short-term edible but long-term toxic. But some of the other individual steps seem to only make sense as part of the whole. That being said, just because each step is interdependent now doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been independent at the time. The same thing happens in evolution, where we do have mechanisms that evolved to have 50 different moving parts, and the whole thing fails if any part is missing. Each part evolved at a point where it was dependent on what existed but nothing depended on it. But then once a part fits into a structure, it can change in a way to become dependent on newer parts. Something similar that I can’t think of easily could conceivably have happened here. The problem would be that there would have to be a noticeable advantage in order for people to decide to do the things more than once.

    • christiankl says:

      It seems like you need to give a lot of respect to the oldest person around for such a tradition to spread.

      If the oldest person in a tribe is routinely the person who grew up with their parents investing the most energy into food preparation, and that person gets seen as wise and worthy of emulating, it seems reasonable that you get more and more elaborate food prep over time.

    • LesHapablap says:

      It may be that for some of these complex processes there are lots of alternative processes that would also work. So the solution space is pretty big and it is easier than it looks to stumble on one.

  47. Lasagna says:

    Sigh. I never got it together to post on the APA thread, even though I had some interesting things to say about how conferences play out in the legal community and had some great and on-point anecdotes. I could have contributed to the conversation, and looked like quite the smartypants too. Instead I’ll write here, on topics I know nothing about. Such is life.

    This was a really great piece – thanks, Scott! Everything before and after the study on infants and plant life blew my mind, and I’ll be thinking about it for the near future and reading the book soon. But some warning bells started to go off with that study – is anyone else skeptical?

    I’ve got two young kids of my own. One puts everything in his mouth, the other less so, and neither evinced anything resembling what I’m reading in Section III. We spent this past Sunday trying to teach my youngest not to eat the lawn, and my oldest liked to shove ant hills and ants into his mouth around that age. Yeah, sure, anecdotal, but a “natural aversion among infants to eating plants until they see mommy eating them, and after that they can and do identify that particular plan themselves and will eat it” seems like a remarkable ability that SOMEONE would have noticed before this study. I’ve never heard anyone mention it.

    I don’t think I’m weakmanning the book, it’s just that this is the only aspect discussed in Scott’s review that I have direct experience with, and my direct experience conflicts with the author’s conclusions. It’s a Gell-Mann amnesia thing, and makes me suspicious of the otherwise exciting ideas here. Like: does anyone here have any direct knowledge of manioc harvesting and processing, or the Tukanoans culture? How accurate is the book?

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      If you still want to write about what you’ve seen at conferences, you could put it in an open thread.

    • moscanarius says:

      Like: does anyone here have any direct knowledge of manioc harvesting and processing, or the Tukanoans culture? How accurate is the book?

      I don’t know how much this counts, as it is information I got from others and never verified myself, but the process described in the text is in line with what I heard my relatives tell about cassava harvesting in Northeastern Brazil (so not in the Amazon, but not that far). And I know also from them that the Indians in the Amazon used the tongue of the Pirarucu fish for grating manioc.

      Most manioc eaten in Brazil nowadays is of the non-bitter type, and is usually just peeled and let rest under water for some hours before cooking; yet from time to time we have people getting poisoned by eating bitter manioc believing it could be processed like common manioc.

  48. ItsGiusto says:

    I’ve been thinking about cultural evolution a lot since I saw Henrich speak at Harvard a few years ago. He gave a great demonstration of how having a critical mass of people who have knowledge and can pass it down can impact the ability of knowledge to be sustained, longer-term. He showed pictures produced in a study in which they had some people had to figure out how to use Gimp (a notoriously difficult photoshop-like tool) to try to produce a particular image. If I remember correctly, individuals in one group could leave written notes for individuals in the next “generation” of people who were going to do the task, in order to help them along. Another other group could not pass knowledge between successive generations. And another group could pass notes to the next generation that everyone in the generation was allowed to see. It was only the group that was allowed to pass notes to everyone in the next generation that had everyone in the final generation producing the picture correctly at the end of 6 or so successive generations of people learning to use Gimp.

    One thing I’m wondering about: can we really say that animals have no cultural evolution? Or do they just have the ability to learn knowledge, but not have it impact their evolution, the way it does for humans? Or just not impact it as much? For example, it doesn’t seem that cats innately know to lick themselves to bathe. They’re very very susceptible to the idea, but unless they grow up with their mother or other cats who teach them how to do it, they don’t figure it out for themselves. So we do have animals that have sort of evolved a kind of cultural practice over time, and I’ll bet that that has impacted their actual physiology, such as their digestive tract in some way.

  49. John Schilling says:

    I think this one greatly overstates its thesis. Inventiveness without the ability to transmit inventions to future generations is of small value; you can’t invent the full set of survival techniques necessary for e.g. the high arctic in a single generation of extreme cleverness. At best you can make yourself a slightly more effective ape. But cultural transmission of inventions without the ability to invent is of exactly zero value. It takes both. And since being a slightly more effective ape is still better than being an ordinary ape, culture is slightly less than 50% of the secret of our success.

    That said, the useful insight is that the knowledge we need to thrive, is vastly greater than the knowledge we can reasonably deduce from first principles and observation. And what is really critical, this holds true even if you are in a library. You need to accept “X is true because a trusted authority told me so; now I need to go on and learn Y and Z and I don’t have time to understand why X is true”. You need to accept that this is just as true of the authority who told you X, and so he may not be able to tell you why X is true even if you do decide to ask him in your spare time. There may be an authority who could track that down, but it’s probably more trouble than it’s worth to track him down. Mostly, you’re going to use the traditions of your culture as a guide and just believe X because a trusted authority told you to, and that’s the right thing to do,

    “Rationality” doesn’t work as an antonym to “Tradition”, because rationality needs tradition as an input. Not bothering to measure Avogadro’s number because it’s right there in your CRC handbook wikipedia is every bit as much a tradition as not boning your sister because the Tribal Elders say so; we just don’t call it that when it’s a tradition we like. Proper rationality requires being cold-bloodedly rational about evaluating the high-but-not-perfect reliability of tradition as a source of fact.

    Unfortunately, and I think this may be a relic of the 18th and early 19th century when some really smart polymathic scientists could almost imagine that they really could wrap their minds around all relevant knowledge from first principles on down, our culture teaches ‘Science!’ in a way that suggests that you really should understand how everything is derived from first principles and firsthand observation or experiment even if at the object level you’re just going to look up Avogadro’s number in Wikipedia and memorize it for the test.

    • Jaskologist says:

      This is very much the idea behind Anselm’s “Faith seeking understanding” and Augustine’s “believe so that you may understand.”

    • HeelBearCub says:

      This is a good summary. It also encapsulates why my reaction to intital exposure to The Sequences was a firm nope. It very much reminds me of the (not actually original, how fitting) Newton quote – “If I have seen further, it is only because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”

      You need to accept “X is true because a trusted authority told me so; now I need to go on and learn Y and Z and I don’t have time to understand why X is true”.

      I think I would modify this idea (and you touch on the modification with your Avagadro’s number example). It’s not the “why” that don’t understand, it’s all of the details behind the proof of “why”. It’s a slight distinction, but I think it is important.

      ETA: and part of that isn’t so much “why” as “I trust I don’t need to reconfirm”

    • Simon_Jester says:

      A big part of the reason scientists’ education pushes the idea of making sure the scientist learns things from the first principles on down is because figuring stuff out from first principles is what scientists do. You hire a scientist because you need a professional work-out-from-first-principles-er. So you begin a scientist’s training on a set of relatively simple and well understood first principles, and walk them through the process of deriving a larger body of human knowledge from those principles.

      When an undergraduate physics major practices measuring the speed of light in a lab, the objective isn’t to ensure that they have a better understanding of “how fast light travels” or to show them what to do with the fact that light travels at such a speed. It’s to teach them the practice of “how to precisely measure something in a lab using a pile of equipment and intermediate mathematical techniques.”

      Just like when a kid learning carpentry makes their first birdhouse, the objective isn’t to make a birdhouse, it’s to learn the skills of creating precisely shaped wooden pieces, and then assembling them, into an arbitrary shape whose precise nature is irrelevant.

      • John Schilling says:

        You hire a scientist because you need a professional work-out-from-first-principles-er.

        Most people in fact hire scientists because they need a professional tell-me-what-other-scientists-believe-er or a professional work-it-out-from-the-most-recent-generally-accepted-truths-er.

  50. P. George Stewart says:

    Sum fots:-

    Distinguish between reasoning ability and g. g is often intuitive (the brain’s quasi-Bayesian rough working done below the level of consciousness, answer “pops into head”). Reasoning is conscious rough-working, so to speak.

    One brain might be a super-sophisticated quasi-Bayesian processor with hardly any conscious self-awareness involved (genius solutions just pop into the head again and again and again – idiot savants, Mozart’s whole symphonies in mind’s ear, etc.); another brain might be a poorer Bayesian engine but be able to articulate its meager products easily (“clever sillies”).

    Reasoning ability and g may go together, but not necessarily. Connected to threshold phenomena? (similar to liminal hypnagogic imagery, word salad, hallucinations, etc.?) Simple chemical switch?

    g, but not reasoning, very much involved in cultural evolution – cultural rules are modified by “bright ideas,” sometimes based on split-second decisions, quick thinking that satisfices, gets passed on. So: modified instincts gradually transform into culture, culture eventually articulated and brought to self-consciousness in terms of symbols, becomes subject to the possibility of reasoned criticism. Eventually “ideas die in our stead.”

    Reasoning as such only matters (connected to status, etc.) when symbol systems become sufficiently developed. g always mattered as a sifter of social rules.

    (Also cf. Schopenhauer on his distinction between Understanding – shared with animals, does most of the heavy lifting in terms of world-coping – and Reasoning, symbolic self-representation of understandings.)

  51. The cyanide example is different from several of the others in an important way–the negative feedback from the wrong decision is delayed by decades, making it very hard to learn by trial and error.

    In the case of hunting seals, on the other hand, at every point making the wrong choice will have an immediate negative effect, and similarly with several of the others. The correct conclusion is not that you should never use your reason to decide what to do instead of blindly following tradition. It’s that, in doing so, you should recognize that you will sometimes get the wrong answer, that not all problems are easily solved, and that current practice is at least a good first guess.

    It’s hard to see how the correct tradition could have evolved in a population that always followed tradition—who would be the first person to make each of the modifications that led to a better outcome? It looks as though what is really happening is what should happen–using reason, starting with a strong prior that existing practice is better than random choice, enough better so that one should be cautious about changes. If you are making arrows, make most of them in the traditional way but see if some other wood works better for a few—and when it doesn’t, try a different modification.

    That gives you a plausible mechanism for developing better techniques for hunting seals, possibly starting in an environment where there are enough less difficult food sources so that you can survive while learning, through multiple generations, how to hunt seals better. Having done so, the population gradually expands into harsher environments where hunting seals right is more crucial.

    I don’t see any plausible explanation of how the right way of processing a foodstuff could develop if the wrong way has negative consequences only twenty years later. One can imagine doing it by evolution–but how long would it take, if tribes that did it wrong died out, to be replaced by tribes that, by random chance, happened to have hit on the entire correct procedure?

    Only two explanations strike me as making sense: Divine intervention, to teach the tribe how to do it, or a mistake in Scott’s description–possibly that the imperfectly processed manioc tastes worse, or has some short term negative health effects, than the perfectly processed. That would give you feedback sufficiently immediate to provide an incentive to modify the recipe. Note:

    Boiling does, however, remove or reduce the bitter taste and prevent the acute symptoms (e.g., diarrhea, stomach troubles, and vomiting).

    Which suggests that some bitter taste and some immediate negative symptoms may remain.

    If Scott’s account is accurate, perhaps we should take this as strong evidence for the existence of helpful gods, advanced aliens, or something similar, beings who could figure out how to process manioc and hunt seals and make arrows and teach the locals.

    • JPNunez says:

      My theory is that they initially eat very little manioc, thus simple boiling eliminates enough cyanide to not kill your family twenty years later -and yeah, removes the bitter taste-.

      As they move towards a manioc centered agricultural culture, more traditions are heaped upon boiling. Groups that do not add traditions die off later. Groups that add traditions are able to eat even more manioc.

    • Randy M says:

      One can imagine doing it by evolution–but how long would it take, if tribes that did it wrong died out, to be replaced by tribes that, by random chance, happened to have hit on the entire correct procedure?

      Good point.
      Biological evolution does have much longer timescales to work out. It’s easy to use argument by analogy to say culture does the same thing, but the math for the two is different as you point out. Especially if the ‘trait’ in question takes nearly a lifetime to manifest, like seems to be the case here.

      • JPNunez says:

        Quick google says it has been used as food in the amazon for around 7000 years. Humans have been there for 11000 years.

        So…that?

        • Randy M says:

          So…that?

          Which is remarkably different from the many millions of years the life had to evolve, no?

          And then we need to consider the mutation rate of cultural traits, how long it takes a new tribe to evolve if they die out from some harmful mutation, and so on.

          • JPNunez says:

            The text implies the die off is quick; a whole family will have cyanide poison twenty years down the line, maybe not killing them instantly, but also giving them a very hard time trying to get spouses for their kids, or surviving off other economic activities.

            Meanwhile in regular evolution, most changes may not kill off the species, only make them a little more or less probable to reproduce. But it will be quick to kill off harmful mutations too, so it’s not surprising cultural evolution can get there in 7000 years.

            edit: Well, maybe I am interpreting this wrong and it only took them the 4000 years from arriving to being used as food. I think that the answer is more that it was very little used in the initial years, and slowly adapted over the later 7000 years. I assume they were still adapting to their use during Colombus time.

            edit2: It seems JohnBuridan may be right;

            https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/10.1086/659998

            During the middle eighth millennium BP, the first signs of major crop movements northward from their area(s) of origin in southern South American can be seen. Macrofossil and starch grain data show that peanuts moved into the Zaña Valley of northern Peru by 8500 BP. Macrofossils of manioc (identification confirmed by starch grains isolated directly from root remains) also occur there by about 8500 BP, and starch grains from the plant are present in central Panama at 7600 BP. Pollen evidence from the Colombian Amazon indicates that manioc arrived there before 5800 BP. It is possible that peanuts and manioc moved north together from a common area of origin (fig. 1B).

            The dates in this paper are in BP (before present) so you gotta substract 2000 for BC years. So, there’s a fossil in Peru from 6500 BC, and at least some in the Colombian Amazon around 3800 BC. So…between 2500 to 5000 years.

        • JohnBuridan says:

          +1 on David Friedman. This is a puzzle.

          As a bad math BSer.
          4k years is 120 generations.
          So assuming the complex ritual comes into existence in 120 generations how fast was cultural evolution?

          What are our possible rates of cultural variation?
          How long would it take for a bad cultural mutation to be selected out?

          Let’s say that every three generations someone changes the cooking method. That a change is either neutral, negative, or positive. The chance of a change being neutral, negative, or positive is 25%, 74%, 1%. We will also assume that positive changes get locked in because “tradition.

          So for forty changes in method -> 10 are neutral, 30 are bad, and 1 is good.
          If the good habit was locked in early, perhaps the negative effects killed the tribe, but not before the positive practice spread to other tribes because of their healthier population? In that case you would only need 3 tribes to make a healthy mutation… IDK

          I don’t know how to proceed from here, even though I have been taking extreme liberties in my assumptions. But it just seems crazy that the neutral and bad habits are not coexisting with the good eating habits.

    • Paper Rat says:

      Bitter variety of manioc contains quite a lot of cyanide (russian wiki says 400 grams of unprocessed bitter manioc contains lethal dose of cyanide for an average human), so you don’t really have to wait for a decade to see people getting sick from eating it raw. Then it’s more a matter of experimentation, like mincing, soaking and boiling the tuber stops people from asphyxiating and vomiting and reduces the bitter taste, drying reduces bitter taste even more and so on. No need for aliens or gods.

      Also it seems the process itself doesn’t need to be exact, your goal is to remove the cyanide and it can be achieved with a variety of ways, some probably more effective than others.

    • dick says:

      It’s hard to see how the correct tradition could have evolved in a population that always followed tradition—who would be the first person to make each of the modifications that led to a better outcome?

      Scott only discussed the follow-tradition-vs-defect bit briefly, but it’s something I’ve pondered before and I bet that the real story is more like: humans (and probably less-complex animals) have a kind of built-in tendency to follow tradition most of the time and defect occasionally.

      As discussed in the review, it’s clear that there’s value to passing down successful strategies. However, they have to come form somewhere, and every successful strategy was presumably a novel one at some point in history. The simplest mechanism to explain this is a mechanism in which some small proportion of the time, individuals defy tradition to abandon an old practice or adopt a new one, and the rest of the tribe ignores them if their experiment fails and adopts the new practice if it seems successful.

      For example: tradition says that you need to let maize sit for two days before you boil it (or whatever), but one stubborn girl decides that she will let hers sit for a week. Her mother scolds her, but she is stubborn, and carries on. A generation later, whether her kids follow her method or tradition is (presumably) at least somewhat affected by whether her family seems successful in comparison to the rest of the tribe. Another: tradition says that the tribe follows the river north to the valley for summer foraging and south to the forest for winter scavenging (or whatever), but one stubborn young man decides to cross the river and head east seeking better hunting grounds. His father scolds him, but he’s stubborn, off he goes. If he finds success, more young men go with him next summer, and by the time he’s a grandfather, a new tradition is formed. If he never returns, a different new tradition might be formed – a taboo on crossing the river.

      The reason I like this is that it would explain some of the recalcitrance and risk-seeking behavior of teenagers and young adults. The cliches about kids rebelling against their parents, and parents trying to control their kids with only partial success, in this model describe a relief valve for how likely a generation is to deviate from tradition. In lean times, kids trust the elders more, and seek novel strategies less; in times of plenty, the opposite. That could be the provenance of the time-worn idea that “these kids today don’t listen to their elders because they have it too soft”.

    • baconbits9 says:

      There are a few more clues here as well- Manioc is drought resistant, which is why it is a staple. Going out on a limb here but I bet that people on the edge of starvation/dehydration are more susceptible to cyanide poisoning. The processes were likely developed during periods of food stress when more direct correlations were apparent (especially if say it passes through breast milk and kills babies easily).

    • P. George Stewart says:

      “Only two explanations strike me as making sense: Divine intervention, to teach the tribe how to do it, or a mistake in Scott’s description–possibly that the imperfectly processed manioc tastes worse, or has some short term negative health effects, than the perfectly processed. That would give you feedback sufficiently immediate to provide an incentive to modify the recipe.”

      Yes, in some respects our senses are super-refined, and we can make lightning-fast spur of the moment decisions to reject something just on a slight feeling of it being “off” in some way; also if the thought is ignored, and someone gets sick, then you might remember that you had that vague feeling, and go with it next time.

      Normally, I usually go some ways past the sell-by date with foods; but sometimes, I’ll chuck something away on the basis of just a vague feeling – not a gross smell or anything, just some vague sense of something being off. I don’t know whether by making that decision I’m actually saving myself a night’s barfing, but “better to be safe than sorry.”

  52. rahien.din says:

    Isn’t this all about risk management? And an example of survivorship bias?

    Culturally-mediated practices have to be culturally-mediated because they aren’t obviously good ideas. Straightening crooked branches to make straight arrows isn’t obviously a good idea. Taking your herd miles out of the way to seek water in a drought isn’t obviously a good idea. It’s just that those ideas happened to work in important situations, and thus they became embedded in the group’s practices. We only call them “the successes of culture” because we can not see how current successes have been winnowed from prior failures, but also how current successes may be inferior to other methods. There may be far better sources of arrow wood. There may be far closer watering holes. Those elephants might be traveling too far. The author totally elides the fact that modern nutrition is a vast improvement over relying on nixmatilized corn.

    Also, we only call them “cultural successes” because we are thereby ignoring all the practices that are obviously good ideas. Eating apples. Eating birds. Living under shelter. Chasing the mice away. Preferentially drinking water from moving streams. I wager that most of what we and other animals do successfully is not cultural per se.

    So, even given the importance of culture in safeguarding practices, praising culture in that way is basically survivorship bias.

    There is something that culture is inherently incapable of doing : generating new ideas. Take those complicated hunting procedures. Sure, the only reason they endure is culture, but they did not originate from culture. They originated from the idiosyncracy of some original hunter, who one day said to himself “I bet if I straightened these branches they would make awesome arrows.” But he had to risk going unfed if his arrows didn’t work. When they did, his technique got adopted and readopted until it became almost a ritual.

    But this was a very real risk. It paid off in a tremendous way, but that hunter’s idiosyncracy probably led to hungry nights while his techniques were perfected. And if no other hunters had adopted his techniques, there would have been no benefit to his society.

    The way society benefits – what culture actually does – is not by protecting old ideas. The way society benefits is by selecting good ideas and allowing those gambles to reach fruition.

  53. baconbits9 says:

    There is an inadequate understanding of game theory here that ruins most of the quotes.

    1. The first Inuit who killed a seal didn’t go through a 15 step process that included killing polar bears for the tools. When explorers find an area that has never been touched by humans they discover that the animals are easy to catch and kill, and often wiped out islands worth of native fauna in short order (with the help of rats). However when you come into contact with animals who have adjusted their behavior to avoid humans over the past X,000 years then hunting is crazily harder. The Inuit’s obviously didn’t intuit a 15 step process to kill seals, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t intuit the process one step at a time as seals became steadily harder to catch.

    2. I flat out don’t believe this study would replicate with a decent structure.

    To explore this idea in the lab, the psychologists Annie Wertz and Karen Wynn first gave infants, who ranged in age from eight to eighteen months, an opportunity to touch novel plants (basil and parsley) and artifacts, including both novel objects and common ones, like wooden spoons and small lamps.

    Infants shove plants in their mouths at every opportunity, basically from any age that they can actually grasp and stick things in their mouths they do it. All three of my kids (including my 7 month old just an hour ago) would grab any plant matter that they were sat next to and cram it in their pie holes and this is to the exclusion of sticks/rocks/toys around them. One of the problems that I suspect is the age range selected, 8-18 months isn’t an infant range, its a toddler range and these kids have already learned to like/dislike things of their own accord and based on their own experiences. Plop a bear bottomed one year old on the grass and their reaction will largely be determined by how many times thier bare ass has sat on grass before then.

    3. More bad game theory

    However, this situation is like [the Matching Pennies game]. The caribou are mismatchers and the hunters are matchers.

    No, the matching pennies game is not like a hunter/hunted situation. Matching pennies is a random/random game where neither player has any reason to pick heads or tails, game animals do not simply randomly exist is nature. They have a whole host of needs (food, shelter, water, safety from other predators besides humans) and their existance prior to exposure to humans will be a non random distribution based on these factors. Even after humans discover the prey they only become one of many factors determining where the prey will congregate. If this wasn’t true then the Inuit wouldn’t have any ‘rich hunting grounds’ that persisted from season to season.

    Why are people so bad at reasoning?

    Than who? Other animals? Because we aren’t bad compared to other animals. To the best humans? That’s tautalogical, the average will always be worse than the best.

    • baconbits9 says:

      It is also very different to separate out a ‘cultural’ vs a ‘reasoning’ explanation as they often look the same. Say you discover a native tribe that buries fish heads in mounds that it then grows heavy feeding crops. Possible explanations

      1. Various tribes buried various things in their farmland as sacrifices to the gods, the ones who buried high nitrogen organics like fish heads had better yields and so their culture grew. Eventually the ‘fish head worshipers’ were the dominant group.

      2. One smart person saw that volunteer plants growing where they dumped their used fish heads did exceeding well. That person buried a few fish heads, saw his crops did well there and told everyone about it. A few generations later the original person was forgotten and every kid is taught how burying a fish head appeases the plant gods and the ‘fish head worshipers’ are the dominant group.

      #2 is likely similar to the real course of events, but the end result looks cultural despite the steps that lead to it being very rational. Discover a truth about the world and then discover a means of transmitting that truth. Basically the same as kids chanting ‘My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas’ would look ridiculous if stripped of its context.

    • Spookykou says:

      In response to 3. While the specifics might not be a perfect match do you think there is no room for an element of randomness to be beneficial in the situations described? Hunting and Planting? Obviously you can’t hunt or plant in a totally random way, but I doubt the Inuits used the augury and determined that the open ocean was the best place to hunt caribou.

      • baconbits9 says:

        In response to 3. While the specifics might not be a perfect match do you think there is no room for an element of randomness to be beneficial in the situations described?

        There might be given a weak enough definition of random, but the point is that the author does not understand game theory. You cannot take a solution for a specific game with rules X, Y and Z and then generalize it to a different game with very different rules, that he would attempt to do so and cast it as evidence for his view demonstrates what David Friedman is often commenting on- if someone is misusing information from a field you are familiar with in their work then it is hard to be confident that the rest of their evidence isn’t similarly mangled, exaggerated or over simplified.

        • Spookykou says:

          I can see where you are coming from here, if I had any domain that I considered myself an expert in, it would probably seriously lower my opinion of a given argument/theory if it displayed a poor understand of that domain.

          On the other had, in a recent thread Scott defended EY when faced with a similar charge, arguing that while the specifics of his metaphor might be wrong, the idea he was trying to express was still important/useful.

          Personally, a plausible argument for superstition to be a case of our heuristics working as intended instead of my go to example of them failing, made this the most interesting part of the review/book for me. As I believe that was actually the point of the comparison to the game theory concept in question, the failure to understand game theory, especially when I don’t either, does little to move my belief/interest in the idea.

          • baconbits9 says:

            On the other had, in a recent thread Scott defended EY when faced with a similar charge, arguing that while the specifics of his metaphor might be wrong, the idea he was trying to express was still important/useful.

            I would give more leeway to a metaphor, a solved game however is a mathematical proof that relies on the conditions layed out. If you change the conditions then you should have no confidence in the solution holding. Heuristics are very useful but comparing them to solved games creates a false equivalence. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket doesn’t mean ‘if you have one egg crack it and spread it across two baskets’.

  54. S_J says:

    Henrich is kind of cruel in his insistence on this. He recommends readers go outside and try to start a fire. He even gives some helpful hints – flint is involved, rubbing two sticks together works for some people, etc. He predicts – and stories I’ve heard from unfortunate campers confirm – that you will not be able to do this, despite an IQ far beyond that of most of our hominid ancestors.

    I appreciate this. Despite the fact that I could likely go outside, select a clear piece of ground, gather kindling, and start a fire within 10 minutes. And keep the fire alive for as long as fuel is available, and I have interest in keeping the fire going. [1]

    I suspect that the ancient legends of how/when mankind learned about fire reflect the core fact that Henrich is stating here.

    From what summaries I can find online, the legends credit fire as a gift from a deity, or a discovery by a talented individual. Most such legends reflect the fundamental fact that the ability to make/control fire is one of key features that separates mankind from other creatures. (I think, in the geological past, the tool of fire was used by Neanderthal/Denisovan as well as by anatomically-modern-humans. So it likely isn’t the key tool that distinguished ANH from Neanderthal/Denisovan…some other cultural/tool interactions likely gave ANH an advantage.)

    —————-
    [1] This is the fruit of many family camping trips as a child and teen. I saw my father’s methods, and later the methods of various uncles, one of my grandparents, other relatives, and then other adults leading teenagers on camping trips. Most methods I learned were technological: matches, lighters, kindling, accelerants, etc.

    I still haven’t seen a bow-drill method of staring a fire demonstrated. I don’t think I’ve seen a flint demonstrated. I have confidence that I could use a flint to start a fire, if I also had a hatchet and large knife as tools. If I was handed a bow-drill, I have confidence I could start a fire eventually (as long as I had the hatchet/knife, as well).

    I don’t have confidence that I could start a fire if I was handed the materials to make a bow-drill, even if I had the hatchet and knife.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      Most methods I learned were technological: matches, lighters, kindling, accelerants, etc.

      I don’t think you actually understood the premise.

      Given that seasoned survival and wilderness experts can struggle to start a fire de novo in novel conditions, I think you may want to reassess whether you could do it never having practiced or even seen it done.

      • Mark Atwood says:

        I’ve done it, making fire without matches or chemicals. Multiple times, as a Boy Scout. Three different techniques. Flint and steel, bow-drill, and focusing glass.

        (Bow drill is annoyingly slow, but it does work.)

        Now, I don’t want to bet my life on doing it in the rain with my hands shaking from the cold and trying to make dry kindling from a wet piece of wood, but I’ve even seen that done, as a demonstration.

        • Bugmaster says:

          I’ve never managed the bow drill method — probably because I didn’t have the right kind of kindling, I don’t know. But the other methods work pretty well. That said, focusing glass is obviously cheating — if you have the technology to make those, then you should have matches as well.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            Doesn’t lensing predate matches?

          • Mark Atwood says:

            … focusing glass is obviously cheating — if you have the technology to make those …

            How is that more cheating than having steel for the flint and steel method?

            The other advantage of a focusing glass is that it’s useful for many many other things, especially for wilderness explorer types. Plus, it continues to work after you get it wet, and you never use it up.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          I’ve done it

          This is proof it can be done if you have been instructed as to how and placed in an environment that has all the requisite materials, etc.

          No one was disputing this. It would be stupid to dispute that some group could be a vector for cultural transmission of this knowledge. Indeed, that’s the observed phenomena leading to the thesis.

          It’s not proof that it can be easily done just by knowing that it’s theoretically possible. And it is most definitely not proof that you will arrive at it without knowing that it is possible at all.

    • The not-obvious hard part, with flint and steel or bow drill, is the kindling. Using a match, you can start a fire using wood shavings–or paper if you have it. Neither of those will catch the spark from flint and steel and give you a flame. Char cloth or fine steel wool will, but the original comment didn’t assume you had them. There are probably natural materials that will do it too, but you have to know what they are and the modern turned loose in the wilderness probably doesn’t.

  55. Edward Scizorhands says:

    Hold things over fire to cook them

    Hey, look what Zog do.

  56. Mark Atwood says:

    Two other foods that have long complicated preparation processes to be edible are olives and chocolate.

    We tend to forget olives because its now just so invisible background to us westerners, but olives were THE economic foundation of Athens, and their own story about how how they figured out how to prepare them is that the Goddess of *TECHNOLOGY* gave it to them. The whole modern concept of techne stemmed from weird-ass multistep food production.

    As for chocolate, when I learned the long laborious multistep process for making it, I came away wondering how many other amazing delicious things there are in the biosphere that just haven’t stumbled on the preparation process for them.

    • jermo sapiens says:

      Good point. I saw this video on chocolate recently and found it fascinating. I wonder what raw chocolate beans tastes like.

    • b_jonas says:

      I hadn’t heard this story yet. Who is this god of technology? Is it Hēphaistos, the lame blacksmith?

      I believe linen and hemp also require complicated procedures if you want to make textile from them, yet humans in the old world figured out the preparation process.

    • ana53294 says:

      A weird dish that requires lots of technology is walnut jam. It’s a way of making an edible product out of green walnuts.

      It’s a very complicated process; I once tried to do it myself. It took me a couple of months and I got a barely passable product.

    • salvorhardin says:

      The thing about chocolate, though, is that the intermediate products at a lot of the precursor steps are in fact edible and reasonably tasty (source: the bean-to-bar chocolate making class I took a couple of months ago). They don’t taste nearly as good as the finished product, but they taste good enough to be promising: the culinary equivalents of the proto-eye patch of cells that makes a rough but useful sensory distinction between light and dark.

  57. drunkfish says:

    Yesterday you talked about mistakenly believing books that were extremely compelling arguments for fields you aren’t familiar with. Today you published a review of an extremely compelling, viscerally satisfying, argument for a paleoanthropology. I definitely expected the end of this article to be some sort of “and this had all been crackpottery, ha!”.

    Fascinating discussion though, adding this book to my reading list.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      I thought of that, too, but it’s kind of cheating as a gotcha! when you go in pretending to be a crackpot after you’ve spent the better part of a decade developing a reputation for epistemic rigor.

      • drunkfish says:

        I guess, but it’d be more about the book itself being the crackpot. Something like how in https://slatestarcodex.com/2019/05/07/5-httlpr-a-pointed-review/, Scott spent a while talking up the research before saying

        There’s only one problem.

        ALL.

        OF.

        THIS.

        IS.

        LIES.

        • Simon_Jester says:

          Except that was at least in the same article.

          I get the feeling Scott would have an attack of angry conscientiousness-monsters clawing at him if he wrote multiple blog posts full of nonsense with the intent of saying a month later or whatever that they were all nonsense. After all, people might read his nonsense-posts and not the retraction.

          • drunkfish says:

            Oh yeah I agree, I meant that I expected this post to flip things around at the end. I still haven’t ruled out some scheming by Scott, but at this point I’m no longer really expecting him to say it’s all been a ploy.

  58. fnord says:

    No doubt Henrich cites accurate stories of people being thrust into unfamiliar environments and failing to adapt. But if you look for them, you can also find plenty of success stories about humans moving into a novel places and still figuring out how to survive there (in some sense, every place except a bit of Subsaharan Africa would have such a success story). And such migrations are not always a gradual process of conditions changing gradually over generations; certainly it seems like various Polynesian islands were settled in a single generation.

    • Robert Jones says:

      Quite. I’m sure that the writer does provide “many stories about European explorers marooned in unfamiliar environments [who] starved to death”, but overall European exploration was a great success. The disasters are famous precisely because they’re not typical.

  59. nkurz says:

    I’m not sure where Scott is going with this series, but I seem to have a different reaction to the excerpts from Henrich than most (but not all) of the commenters before me: rather than coming across as persuasive, I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him.

    For simplicity let’s concentrate on the seal hunting description. I don’t know enough about Inuit techniques to critique the details, but instead of aiming for a fair description, it’s clear that Henrich’s goal is to make the process sound as difficult to achieve as possible. But this is just slight of hand: the goal of the stranded explorer isn’t to reproduce the exact technique of the Inuit, but to kill seals and eat them. The explorer isn’t going to use caribou antler probes or polar bear harpoon tips — they are going to use some modern wood or metal that they stripped from their ice bound ship.

    Then we hit “Now you have a seal, but you have to cook it.” What? The Inuit didn’t cook their seal meat using a soapstone lamp fueled with whale oil, they ate it raw! At this point, Henrich is not just being misleading, he’s making it up as he goes along. At this point I start to wonder if part about the antler probe and bone harpoon head are equally fictional. I might be wrong, but beyond this my instinct is to doubt everything that Henrich argues for, even if (especially if) it’s not an area where I have familiarity.

    Going back to the previous post on “Epistemic Learned Helplessness”, I’m surprised that many people seem to have the instinct to continue to trust the parts of a story that they cannot confirm even after they discover that some parts are false. I’m at the opposite extreme. As soon as I can confirm a flaw, I have trouble trusting anything else the author has to say. I don’t care about the baby, this bathwater has to go! And if the “flaw” is that the author is being intentionally misleading, I’m unlikely to ever again trust them (or anyone else who recommends them).

    Carried to the extreme — as I tend to do — I don’t think this is a good life strategy. Personally, I would benefit from seeing more positives in an imperfect world, instead of rejecting almost everything. But I do wonder if some milder form of this approach would be an antidote for those who are mislead: if as a beginner you see a serious flaw in a an argument, be suspicious. If after gaining enough expertise to decide that the flaw is indeed real and serious, be very suspicious of the rest of the argument until you are able to confirm it elsewhere.

    • roystgnr says:

      What? The Inuit didn’t cook their seal meat using a soapstone lamp fueled with whale oil, they ate it raw!

      Wikipedia seems to suggest that they ate freshly killed meat raw, but cooked some of the meat brought back to camp using a Kudlik, a soapstone lamp fueled with seal oil or whale blubber. Is that not correct? That would still flatly contradict “but you have to cook it”, but it’s close enough that the mistake doesn’t reach “making it up as he goes along” levels of falsehood. You’re correct that even the true bits seem to be used for argument in a misleading fashion, though.

      • nkurz says:

        You are right, and I’m probably going to far to say that he is entirely making things up. I’m not familiar enough to know how often seal meat was eaten cooked versus raw, and I presume that when it was cooked it was done on a soapstone kudlik/qulliq. This is probably better characterized as another (likely intentional) mischaracterization rather than a wholesale fabrication. Searching though seems to suggest that rendered seal fat was a more common fuel for the qulliq than whale oil.

  60. MachiavellianAugur says:

    Does anywhere in the book the author tackle the question how elaborate procedures came to exist in the first place before being ritualistically cemented and transmitted for generations ?

    In the case of the cyanide potato (TM) – absent some time-traveling nutritionist or ancient proto-scientifically inclined elder shaman (not impossible, especially for relatively newer traditions) the only possible mechanism is different groups settling on different preparation methods defined by local circumstances and preferences like taste, speed of preparation, amount of labour involved etc. Those who failed to get rid of enough cyanide died out and the method that succeeded survived – basically pseudorandom memetic mutations and survival of the fittest.
    This method of emergence is less plausible for things like taboos on shark meat during pregnancy which almost certainly required observational insight into the causal link between shark meat consumption and birth defects occurring to some member of the culture, maybe he realized it from feeding shark meat to livestock but still a manifestation of intelligence in its narrow sense.

    As for augury and divination – I find it highly unlikely that the people who conducted those ceremonies were not aware of their epistemic inefficacy if not the underlying purpose, but making the underlying purpose common knowledge would diminish the social status of the priesthood and make for a less husbandable society – that is the true secret of our success and is the Machiavellian form of intelligence.

    • It’s worth noting that one way the techniques might evolve is by people eating small quantities of manioc and feeling slightly unwell, then finding one way of getting enough of the cyanide out to that the small quantity does no noticeable harm, then trying a somewhat larger quantity, looking for a further processing step, and so on. You get immediate feedback until your process is so good that you can eat all the manioc you want (and have) without any short term problems.

      And, in this story, someone else may have found a different procedure that worked about as well as yours, and it may have occurred to one of you to combine them, just to play safe.

      • MachiavellianAugur says:

        That’s the proto-scientific elder scenario afaic, although it wouldn’t work as well if the effects of trace cyanide poisoning are cumulative and only manifest themselves after decades.

        • Not quite proto-scientific, since I’m assuming that the reason is not that you are trying to discover how to safely eat lots of manioc but only that you want to eat some manioc without getting sick. Once you solve that problem, the obvious next step.

          My final paragraph was intended to suggest how ways of getting out more cyanide than you needed to in the short term could develop–playing safe by combining processes. Also, people might vary in how sensitive they were to cyanide, and the population might vary in how much of their diet was manioc. Is the “only manifest themselves after decades” claim for the most sensitive person with the most manioc intensive possible diet, or only for an average person eating an average amount?

          • MachiavellianAugur says:

            Any variation in preparation done with the understanding that just eating manioc as-is is dangerous and that certain methods of preparation can alleviate that should be considered as proto-scientific, the other option is just eating manioc prepared in ways that make it taste good or preserved longer without realizing the danger and then having your tribe going extinct or too weak to fight off other tribes unless you happened to pick a method that is safe enough.
            Sure you can combine methods to achieve both safety and perhaps better shelf life but if you understand those are the reasons you are doing it for then it’s science.

        • Simon_Jester says:

          If manioc is like a lot of other similar semi-edible plants, hunter-gatherers would at first have only eaten it in dire emergencies. During some famine or other they’d try the starchy plant that tastes vaguely edible but absurdly bitter, and whoever was desperate enough to eat it would get dizzy, fall over, and die.

          And then the famine would go another week and someone would get really desperate and try just a bite of it, just to have something in their stomach, even if it kills them… and NOT die.

          So, they learn, this stuff is poisonous but the LD50 is somewhere between “one bite” and “as much as the first guy ate.” Maybe they can cook the poison out somehow? They’re really hungry.

          And then there’s a round of impromptu efforts to make manioc taste less horrible, which lasts about as long as the famine does.

          After a few hundred years of gradually improving their manioc-cooking practices during once-in-a-decade famine, the tribe may actually be able to start eating the stuff at other times.

          • MachiavellianAugur says:

            Maybe they can cook the poison out somehow?

            The fact that this is even an option – that is that applying heat, physical transformations, mixing with another substance etc. can make something that kills you into something that doesn’t needed to be discovered at some point.

      • JPNunez says:

        I suspect the problem in this is that you survive the short term cyanide poisoning (v important) but also doom your family to long term cyanide poisoning.

        But I see no reason for it to not be part of the process, yeah; surely the survivors just added an extra step that was unnecessary for short term poisoning avoidance, but was necessary for long term poisoning avoidance.

      • albatross11 says:

        Yeah, if we also keep the wisdom passed down of “Don’t screw around with manioc processing–it’s tricky and if you get it wrong, everyone who eats it will get sick,” that will encourage both conservativism and piling on lots of techniques to try to get all the toxin out. Peel it, boil it, soak it overnight, sun-dry it, do a quick ritual to appease the gods, then boil it again for good measure.

  61. DragonMilk says:

    Sounds like this is admonition for me to follow recipes rather than figuratively die of cyanide poisoning…

  62. trees says:

    One implication of this model is that it’s possible both for gender roles to be an arbitrary social construct and for gender identity to be deeply, biologically wired into our psyches — which, IMO, seems right.

    Speaking of gender… I don’t think you meant it like this, but the sentence ending “…their exploration parties were made up entirely of strong young men in their prime, with no need to support women, children, or the elderly” seems to imply that even adult, able-bodied women would be a drain on the group’s resources and ability to survive. The wording there is a bit of an unpleasant distraction from your very interesting larger point.

  63. Clutzy says:

    The hunting anecdote strikes me as just that.

    Yes sometimes there is a learning curve for hunting new species, but with seals, for instance, it became so trivially easy for white people that “clubbing baby seals” was a widely used phrase because they were so easy to kill that we had almost driven them to extinction.

    • Simon_Jester says:

      I think the seal species whites were hunting with clubs weren’t the same species the Inuit were hunting, and/or the Inuit didn’t have access to the beaches where you could just walk up to seals on the beach and brain them with clubs all day long.

    • bullseye says:

      Jared Diamond’s Collapse discusses the Greenland Norse, among several other peoples. The Greenland Norse hunted and ate seal, but never did get the most abundant species because that species requires the Inuit method. They were a profoundly conservative culture who refused to either develop new ideas or imitate the Inuit. (Diamond defends them by noting that they were in a terribly precarious position and any new idea that didn’t work would probably have killed them.)

      • Clutzy says:

        That doesn’t make much sense. And as it comes from Diamond I am not surprised because a lot of his theories are “just so” theories. Indeed, it seems to me that a Greenland expedition lasting over 100 years is a feat in stoicism, as its a pretty lame place to live. Their economy was likely mostly centered around walrus ivory and pelts, which ring seals do not have. Also, whales are even betterer.

        The Inuit method is actually quite simple and intuitive.

        1. Scout for seal dens.
        2. Verify a den is active.
        3. Have a visible indicator for when seal returns.
        4. Strike with powerful hooked projectile that has a string/chain attached to it so you don’t lose the dead seal to the sea’s depths.

        The rest is puffery.

  64. Dan L says:

    Ok, digging in more now that I’m off mobile. I’m always in favor of giving the tool-use theory of human intellectual development a good kicking, and while while Tomasello’s work in distinguishing what exactly makes human intelligence special* is incredibly laudable, I don’t buy Henrich’s theory that it was in service of cultural transmission. That’s an “in order to” story instead of a “because of” story, and evolution doesn’t work with those. Rewriting the explanation so that marginal increases in cultural transmission capability results in runaway fitness increases… doesn’t really seem convincing. Especially not in contrast to the Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis, which we can practically see recurring with a few other species in real time.

    *Answer – it’s always less than you think. Dissolution of difference in kind to difference in degree is incredibly suggestive, but that’s another topic.

    Beyond that and already addressed by a few other commentators, the list of cultural adaptations proffered can’t help but look looks like a cherrypicked case of selection bias. “What would I do if I was suddenly transported back to olden times” is a favorite thought experiment of mine, and while sober study has convinced me that things like these are woefully insufficient, there’s definitely a delta between the level of sophistication a specialized culture with a limited range of useful ideaspace is going to develop over generations and what is necessary for survival. Or even progress.

    I’m glad for the explicit reference to Seeing Like a State, because the parallel seems obvious from how the post is structured. But I ultimately still feel like the generalized defense of Modernism holds: “Okay fine, when we decided to throw out existing knowledge and rebuild it from the ground up everything went terribly wrong, but our crop yields really are up now, and so is per capita GDP, and so is human life expectancy, and so on”. Every case of a seemingly-silly cultural rule actually being justified is automatically a case where we figured out the real justification. So while Chesterson’s Fence is absolutely still a thing, there has to be a bound on how long you wait for the bull to show up before you start exploiting.

    There’s also a case to be made on how biological evolution, prehistoric cultural evolution, and modern technological revolution operate on such dramatically different timescales that it’s dubious that the latters have yet been capable of driving the formers, but this comment is long and I think on a per minute basis I’m better off writing in-line responses elsewhere in the thread.

    Oh, and if it wasn’t clear from all that pseudo-criticism, great post! 👍

  65. Then, we found one student that the program predicted exactly 50% of the time. We asked him what his secret was and he responded that he “just used his free will.”

    Guys, I think we found a PC. Has anyone followed up with him so we can determine which genre of game we’re in?

  66. dansimonicouldbewrong says:

    A useful counter to this post–and this book–would be Edgerton’s “Sick Societies”, which argues fairly persuasively against the claim that culture is inherently adaptive, by citing numerous cultural practices around the world that were glaringly, shockingly maladaptive for the societies that embraced them–in a few cases, in fact, to the point of actual self-extermination.

    • Hoopdawg says:

      I don’t see how it’s a counter, really. Nobody bats an eye when species have shockingly maladaptive traits, and nobody would consider this a rebuke to biologic evolution writ large. Dead ends… happen. Self-extermination is one way of getting rid of them.

  67. benjdenny says:

    Against such theories: we cannot actually do this. Henrich walks the reader through many stories about European explorers marooned in unfamiliar environments. These explorers usually starved to death. They starved to death in the middle of endless plenty. Some of them were in Arctic lands that the Inuit considered among their richest hunting grounds. Others were in jungles, surrounded by edible plants and animals. One particularly unfortunate group was in Alabama, and would have perished entirely if they hadn’t been captured and enslaved by local Indians first.

    This is a bizarre strawman: The person this argument disproves believes that a person can be transported essentially immediately to a completely unfamiliar environment and become completely, survivable familiar before he or she starves to death, despite being alone and unprepared after a lifetime of living socially with preparation.

    Does anybody argue this? Not that I’ve ever heard. It’s like saying “Well, it’s obvious we can’t build computers; one guy can’t unexpectedly find himself on an island with all the raw materials for computers and invent a working internet by himself with no experience in computers or computing books in a single lifetime”. Nobody expects that’s how computers and the internet were invented. We expect they were the product of a lot of tiny innovations, from multiple innovators, accumulated into a big thing.

    The strawman is weirder considering Scott then talks about the Inuit, an invasive species in the cold-weather areas they live, who can live there because of innovation and intelligence built up over time. The difference people are talking about is that.

    When we compare the Inuit to a raccoon, we aren’t saying “well, one single Inuit guy was teleported to the frozen north, and then invented everything he needed to survive by himself, in a week! It would have taken the raccoon many generations!” The comparison is that the raccoon, assuming he did not develop intelligence or evolve to a brute-force hunter, would never be able to hunt seals, while we can, as well as any other animal.

    Once you take away the strawman of “everybody besides me and this author thinks everything ever was invented in one day” there’s no point actually being made here.

    • Robert Jones says:

      The view stated for contradiction in the immediately preceding sentence (to which “this” appears to refer in the passage you quoted) was “we are smart enough to invent neat tools that help us survive and adapt to new environments”.

      As you say, the example shows that we can do this. The inuit have precisely invented neat tools (antler hole assayers! harpoons! bows! polar bear spikes! soapstone lamps!) to allow them to survive and adapt to an environment pretty much as far as possible from the ancestral environment.

      The European explorer does badly (although as stated elsewhere, many Europeans have in fact successfully explored the Arctic) only by comparison with other humans.

  68. Bram Cohen says:

    A funny point about the random number generators: Rituals which require more effort are more likely to produce truly random results, because a ritual which required less effort would be more tempting to re-do if you didn’t like the result.

    • This reminds me of my father’s argument that cheap computers resulted in less reliable statistical results. If running one multiple regression takes hundreds of man hours and thousands of dollars, running a hundred of them and picking the one that, by chance, gives you the significant result you are looking for, isn’t a practical option.

  69. I don’t know if reason biologically exists in humans, but rather disagreeableness. Logical thinking is maybe a scalar applied to that. Diametrical opposition seems to comprise 80% of our heuristics whenever we deliberate.

    Or maybe reason exists, but like the babies and vegetables, it’s domain-specific. So, in societies with bartering or a proto-currency, reason quickly became an adaptive trait to ensure fair deals.

    • MachiavellianAugur says:

      An old Rabinnical-Jewish adage goes “the world was created in a disagreement” – this is basically the Socratic method of epistemology.

  70. JenniferRM says:

    I’ve long felt that my affiliation with LessWrong was atypical in that a large proportion of the old school commentariat of LW reported fabulous “rationalist origin stories”, nearly all of which involved a rejection of some (quite recently evolved?) form of evangelical protestantism that their parents and church pushed on them. These experiences didn’t resonate with me at all. In the normal stories, accepting that literalist non-denominational protestantism (or sometimes a conservative judaism) might be “not literally true” had sad social repercussions, often leading to ostracism and major life adjustments.

    When I tried to come up with some equivalent experience, I mostly came up empty. Three out of four of my grandparents were alcoholics. None attended church. Each had a uniquely crazy (and probably dysfunctional) worldview that was not shared by either of my parents (who rejected vast swathes of their own parental influence) and in turn my organizing life beliefs and lifestyle choices are again quite different from my parents. One of my favorite ways to troll my parents nowadays is to speak well of filial piety, ask their opinion on things in my life, and then take their advice “because filial piety is good”. Neither of them believed in filial piety, so me believing in it feels pleasantly transgressive 😛

    When I searched my memories of my life from 12-25 seeking a rationalist origin story similar to someone else rejecting evangelical Christianity after having been raised in it, I found a strong memory from when I was roughly 14. What happened was that I looked around and accidentally sort of “accepted in my bones” that almost everyone was acting in a way that involved flinching from an enormous number of painful but obvious truths, the uttering of which in their presence would count as a sort of unforgivably mean insult. Clearly this was psychologically healthy on their part… but also I didn’t respect it. It wasn’t something that a sincere truth seeker would do.

    Around that time, and based on emotions like these, I more or less decided to commit a very long and slow and abstractly silly kind of “suicide” via Cognitive Russian Roulette. I decided that when I ran into a possible truth that seemed horrible, like something utterly unhealthy to contemplate at length, or only believed by bad people, and ridiculously weird to talk about in public… but which was ALSO HOW THINGS ACTUALLY ARE, those ideas were the stuff I’d specialize in learning and thinking about.

    Obviously it wouldn’t be smart to talk about this content in public, because what part of “unforgivably mean insult” would I have to miss to make that mistake? Also most people I observed didn’t have blind spots like this for other people, mostly they just had these blind spots for themselves. So… uh… yeah.

    It seemed to me then that if it turned out to be the case that orienting toward the idea of Truth in this way was unhealthy… so be it. If putting an important, accurate, and logically consistent idea in my head caused me to suffer or to die early, or some such, then suffering and early death would be my lot. My motto here was “Truth, truth, truth… to the bitter end.” It was NOT an attempt to construct a shiny new world view and life pattern that would be obviously eventually be better than conservative Judaism. To use the language of LW, it it was simply an (aesthetic?) rejection of instrumental rationality on topics (especially about myself) where epistemic rationality would hurt more.

    It took something like 8 years before I found methods to ameliorate some of the worse aspects of this strategy, and more than 20 years later arguably I’m still in the grips of residual aspects of it?

    Anyway, it is for this reason that I rarely try to evangelize “rationality” to normal people. My approach to this stuff seems unlikely to be good or healthy on average for normal people. My relationship with “the truth” feels to me somewhat like that of a moth to a candle, and if I can warn others away from the same path, that might be for the best. Conscientiousness upgrades and Filial Piety seem a *lot* safer to promote!

    Two final comments…

    ONE: The generation of novel culture seems pretty easy to account for to me. It just comes from people making shit up that “seems plausible” when they haven’t got any better ideas. Turn on the reinforcement learning engine and do whatever it outputs. Iterate this process and something semi-adequate often arises pretty fast. Paul Graham’s essay “Hackers and Painters” points to this phenomenon I think. Essentially, in various domains sometimes people have no option but to play Cognitive Russian Roulette and when it works out they try to “repeat the same thing”, and when repetition works, other people notice. Google [compensatory mutation] for a roughly analogous biological version. Broken mutants who lose an essential trick don’t necessarily get an optimal genome after compensatory mutations, but often they can “make do” with second order adjustments which wouldn’t even be useful if the original error hadn’t already been introduced.

    TWO: I’m a huge fan of this sequence so far! It feels deep and useful and non-hubristic, and not super preachy, in a way that sort of reminds me of your posts on Bravery Debates. Also the grounding in practical examples is nice. If I was going to challenge the premise, it would eventually involve seeking contrasting examples. Larry Page and Elon Musk might be good case studies here, because they *both* have an obsession with first principles thinking, and both (rightly or wrongly) attribute some of their success partly to this obsession.

  71. nameless1 says:

    Seems to me that the Enlightenment was a bit too optimistic about Reason. People say everything good in modern life is a direct descendant of the Enlightenment. Is it true?

    For example, it is good to not have slavery. Now when the Spanish discovered the Americas the churchmen of Salamanca got together in the royal court to discuss whether the natives are even human. They deducted that they have a religion, therefore they are human, therefore they should have the same rights as all other subjects of the king, like to not be killed or enslaved. Well they got killed and enslaved anyway, but that was not the churchmen’s fault. And their reasoning, while clearly pre-Enlightenment seems good to me: having a religion implies abilities like abstract thinking and imagination. Human abilities. Humans make sense of the world somehow, with religion, with philosophy, with science, somehow.

    Anyway, long story short, later on slavery was defended with religious ideas, but also Enlightenment ideas, attacked with Enlightenment ideas, but also religious ideas.

    So it is not conclusive to me that we not having slavery is entirely because of the Enlightenment.

  72. RogerKint says:

    Maybe we just need to keep reading more similarly-themed books until this point really sinks in, and we get properly worried.

    Have you read any of Nassim Taleb’s books, Scott? He’s definitely of this same “cultural evolutionist” mold, skeptical of rationalist, as opposed to time-tested, solutions to problems. I would recommend Antifragile as the most complete statement of his ideas. I would love to read a review of it by you.

  73. Tadas says:

    First you see a post which explains how a convincing theory outside one’s area of expertise can be accepted by a rational person.
    Then you see a post which pushes a convincing theory. To most, at least, judging by the positive tone of the comments.
    And no adds the two? Amazing.
    I guess I got lucky because based on my personal experience many arguments in the book being reviewed ring false.

  74. Kiwanda says:

    The explanation of divination as a randomization strategy reminds me somehow of that proposal by Peter Leeson that trial by ordeal really did work to separate the guilty from the innocent: if everyone believes that trial by ordeal works, then only an innocent person would choose it over alternatives, so the administrator could rig the trial to ensure that the accused would pass, and generally have the right result.

  75. Yair says:

    I swear that throughout the reading of this sequence I keep having a mental picture of Scott as the Fiddler on the roof, not that surprising I suppose, after all, most of us are shtetl optimized.

    Here is the first monologue I think it fits well:

    A fiddler on the roof…
    TEVYE: “Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof. Trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous? Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home.

    And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word!
    Tradition!(Song plays)

    TEVYE: Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything. How to sleep. How to eat. How to work. How to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition get started? I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition. And because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do”.

  76. DavidS says:

    Fascinating! Presumably in the divination case with the caribou, there’s a chance that this is a sort of coordination. In that there may be some generally better hunting spots but if people go to those the caribou don’t etc. But the implication might be that actually a person not using divination is not a failure but a defector: he chooses the prime spots but because others don’t this isn’t a big enough pattern to put off the caribou.

    Separately: the detoxification thing is explored in Terry Pratchett’s ‘Island’, kinda: you have to spit into then sing over something while you make it, which an outsider dismisses, but actually the spit is important because the enzymes respond to break down poison and the song gives the requisite amount of time for it to work.

    More generally, I guess the issue is that tradition has to work for some good reason but this doesn’t mean it can’t be hijacked: if you can embed ‘and then bring the best food to the medicine man’ into your detoxification ritual then you’re exploiting the (legitimate) tradition adaptation.

    • baconbits9 says:

      If I may wade into total speculation mode with limited information…

      I assume that the randomness isn’t real randomness. Ie the ‘map’ isn’t treated as a literal map where you get the result and then go searching for a place that it fits. Instead you are to look at the map and be reminded of one of several hunting grounds that you know about and select that one. This would prevent over hunting of individual grounds but prevent the silliness of walking randomly around looking for prey.

  77. Robert Jones says:

    As others have said, the initial example is unfortunate. Seal hunting is a skill. Skills take time to acquire. If you’re stranded in a situation where you need to hunt seals to survive, it’s too late to learn.

    The idea of hunting seals is not difficult, as Clutzy said. It’s the implementation which is hard.

    Clearly in this instance the skill has been refined over many generations, and in that sense is cultural. But there’s no “mysterious process” here. It’s just successive generations of Inuit using their intellects to make marginal improvements to the technique.

    Maybe this gets the review off to a bad start, but it seems to me that what is being described as “cultural evolution” could equally amount to saying that humans (a) have the intelligence to develop tools and techniques for a variety of environments and (b) are able to pass this knowledge on to other humans, including their children. And yes, the accumulated body of knowledge passed down within a given area is “culture”, and a human from a different culture will likely lack knowledge essential to that area, but there doesn’t seem anything very remarkable about this.

    The account of human evolution in II seems dodgy. AFAIK, the masticatory apparatus and digestive systems of primates vary widely depending on their diet. There is trade off between the digestive system and brain, because both are energy intensive. There are lots of explanations for why humans evolved as persistence hunters (assuming they did, which not everyone agrees), but I’m pretty certain it has something to do with bipedalism. At any rate, the observation that “every hunter-gatherer culture” has water-carrying techniques is not to the point, since no contemporary (or historically recorded) hunter-gatherer culture relies exclusively on persistance hunting techniques, and all such cultures possess many technologies unknown to our earliest ancestors.

    I’m always skeptical of rational explanations of taboos. Fijians have lots of taboos, including lots related to pregnancy. There are bound to be some which are actually reasonable precautions (although I’m not aware that shark-related birth defects are a problem anywhere in the world), but I doubt that a systematic analysis of taboos as a whole would show them to be justified. One sees a similar thing with with Judaic dietary laws: one can point to health-based reasons for this or that law, but as a systematic explanation of the laws as a whole, that works much less well than the purity-based explanation which is also stated in the text.

  78. dark orchid says:

    Amazing. I feel like I’m one of today’s lucky 10000.

    Perhaps the real point is not “20 years later, everyone dies of cyanide poisoning” but “200 years later, absolutely everyone dies from the effects of climate change”?

  79. Ol' Bab says:

    Thank you so much for this peak at an important book!

  80. caryatis says:

    For people interested in the story of how we (very slowly) came to realize what caused the physical and mental problems associated with a high-corn, low-meat/milk/vegetable diet, I recommend the book “The Butterfly Caste: A Social History of Pellagra in the South” by Elizabeth Etheridge.

  81. Eponymous says:

    Re: humans evolving to be physically puny.

    For most of our evolution, our tools have aided us in physical tasks, allowing us to survive with reduced physical ability. Naturally, evolution responded by reducing our physical abilities. Recently our tools have begun to substitute for mental tasks. The likely consequences are horrifying to contemplate.

    • Clutzy says:

      That seems to me a misrepresentation. Tools made it so that being burly was not all that needed, but selection doesn’t pick (and don’t anyf***** one @ me at how selection and choosing arent the right words for evolution) weakness. Instead it picked two traits that were hard to square with burly bulk: Stamina and Precision.

      Its not impossible that AI would result in selecting for dullards, but it might also select against dullards as their limited mental ability is the first set of abilities to become useless.

      • Eponymous says:

        I don’t think this is right. Look at some of the examples given: small mouths, reduced teeth (especially canines), reduced jaw muscles. Those don’t help with stamina — they’re metabolically expensive, and so they naturally were done away with once humans invented tools to cut and grind food, fire to cook it, and weapons to slice and bash people with.

        We used to have pretty thick skulls: evolved defense against being bashed on the head. Then at some point our skulls started getting lighter. Why? Missile weapons. We also got a lot more gracile around this time.

        (I’m somewhat skeptical of the endurance running hypothesis of human evolution anyway, but that’s another matter).

  82. PDV says:

    Aaronson’s ancedote doesn’t check out to me. I remember a psychology study that found that, if you tell some humans to generate random sequences and then give them timely and accurate feedback of how random they’re being, they learn to do it in a few minutes.

  83. albatross11 says:

    The thing is, cultural evolution’s reach is also increased via reason. Those processing steps were surely the result of a hill-climbing process (probably with high-cyanide manioc) that involved the women adapting to manioc by thinking about stuff that had worked in the past, or stuff they knew how to do, or stuff that seemed to take the bitter taste out or make people less sick. Good bows, arrows, spears, houses, clothing, etc., weren’t made from random improvements the way evolution works in genes. Instead, they must have been individual innovations that then stuck or didn’t stick for some combination of working well and being usable/comprehensible by other people.

    Consider the Openness to Experience personality trait. You can think of this as a kind of slider bar that’s set by some combination of your genes, your early childhood environment, and your culture. Slide it too far to the left and you never innovate–you’re stuck in a rut, and when new problems or challenges arise, you can’t figure out what to do. Slide it too far to the right, and you’re constantly discarding all the accumulated wisdom of your civilization and getting cyanide poisoning or making arrows that don’t fly true.

    My guess is that food taboos are some of the strongest ones we have. And also that overcoming those taboos has happened in our history mostly at times when our ancestors were otherwise starving to death.

    A pretty obvious strategy for all kinds of civilizational inertia vs innovation is to look around at how things are working out for you. If you’re constantly getting your ass kicked in tribal conflicts, or you’re hungry and sick all the time, you should become more willing to be innovative. And also, you probably want a fair distribution of innovative/conservative people in your tribe, so there are always a few people trying out new stuff and often getting burned, but occasionally getting a big benefit.

  84. albatross11 says:

    Another book that pairs well with _The Secret of Our Success_ is Thomas Sowell’s _Knowledge and Decisions_.

  85. schleppy says:

    This post has illuminated some thoughts on how a hare runs in a random pattern to avoid being caught by their predator. The technique works best when it’s truly random and not conscious to the hare. If the hare were conscious about the pattern and it’s next move, it’s body language might be too revealing to the predator. Over time the hares with more self awareness would likely die out and most modern hares likely come from descendants of less self knowledge.

    Similarly, humans might be descended from ancestors who were skilled at hiding their motives, not only from outsiders but from themselves too.

    • schleppy says:

      I suppose the point I am trying to make here, is evolution works in mysterious ways. Whether it be subconscious behaviors that only work because the host unaware of the behavior, or traditions that are better following because of their potential adaptive utility.

  86. MCV says:

    No mention is made of the fact that this account of human success supports Robin Hanson’s argument in the FOOM debate. The perhaps most common defense for the FOOM claim is that human brains are so vastly better and more capable than chimpanzee brains. Yet Hanson’s counter-point is, essentially, the point made by Henrich: we are mostly unique in being good at transmitting culture, and that allowed innovation to grow. Human success, including the subset of human success that is growth, broadly construed, has been the product of superior culture that accumulated rather than pure brain gain per se.
    After all, the brain of modern humans is roughly the same as the brains of hunter-gatherer humans, and yet virtually all the things we claim are uniquely human and which people fear from advanced AI, came from post hunter-gatherer humans. This is worth reflecting on, IMO.

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