Anthropology Friday: Oriental Prisons pt 2: Andaman Islands

Monument to the victims of the Black Hole of Calcutta, 1905. It was later moved due to nationalist Indian sentiments.

Welcome back to Anthropology-ish Friday: The History and Romance of Crime: Oriental Prisons, by Arthur Griffiths, a British prison administrator and inspector of the late 1800s. I am not sure when the book was published, but I believe it was sometime in the early 1900s, for Griffiths mentions events that occurred up to 1899 and died in 1908.

On Chinese prisons, an interesting mention:

“For capital and other offences of a serious nature there are six classes of punishment. The first, called ling che, has already been mentioned. It is inflicted upon traitors, parricides, matricides, fratricides and murderers of husbands, uncles and tutors. The criminal is cut into either one hundred and twenty, seventy-two, thirty-six or twenty-four pieces. Should there be extenuating circumstances, his body, as a mark of imperial clemency, is divided into eight portions only. … A great many political offenders underwent executions of the first class at Canton during the vice-royalty of His Excellency, Yeh. On the fourteenth day of December, 1864, the famous Hakka rebel leader, Tai Chee-kwei by name, was put to death at Canton in the same manner.”

Back to India:

“I cannot bring this account of crime in India to a close without mention of an atrocity which is unequalled in the annals of human oppression.

“What imprisonment may mean in the East, when inflicted in defiance of the most elementary conditions of health in a tropical climate, has been recorded in letters of blood in the awful story of the Black Hole of Calcutta. The miscreant responsible for the crime was the Nabob of Bengal, Surajah Dowlah, who had gained a fleeting triumph over the early English settlers, and having captured Fort William at the mouth of Hugli, and made all the occupants prisoners, he turned them over to his savage followers. For security they were incarcerated in one small room or chamber some eighteen feet square. The season was the height of summer; the room was closed to the eastward and southward by dead walls and to the northward by a wall and door, so that no fresh air could enter save by two small windows, strongly barred with iron.

“Into this limited space human beings were crammed, already in a state of exhaustion by a long day spent in fatiguing conflict, and several of them seriously wounded. Piteous entreaties were made to the guards on duty to diminish the numbers imprisoned by removal elsewhere; large sums were offered as the price of this boon, but with no effect. No step could be taken without the permission of the Nabob, who was asleep, and none dared wake him. After vain attempts to break open the doors and fruitless appeals to the mercy of the sleeping Nabob, “the prisoners went mad with despair.” The rest of the story can best be told in the words of one of the masters of the English language, Lord Macaulay.

““They trampled each other down, fought for the places at the windows, fought for the pittance of water with which the cruel mercy of the murderers mocked their agonies, raved, prayed, blasphemed, implored the guards to fire among them. The gaolers in the meantime held lights to the bars, and shouted with laughter at the frantic struggles of their victims. At length the tumult died away in low gaspings and moanings. The day broke. The Nabob had slept off his debauch, and permitted the door to be opened. But it was some time before the soldiers could make a lane for the survivors, by piling up on each side the heaps of corpses on which the burning climate had already begun to do its loathsome work. When at length a passage was made, twenty-three ghastly figures, such as their own mothers would not have known, staggered one by one out of the charnel house. A pit was instantly dug. The dead bodies, a hundred and twenty-three in number, were flung into it promiscuously and covered up.

“But these things which, after the lapse of more than eighty years, cannot be told or read without horror, awakened neither remorse nor pity in the bosom of the savage Nabob. He inflicted no punishment on the murderers. He showed no tenderness to the survivors. Some of them, indeed, from whom nothing was to be got, were suffered to depart; but those from whom it was thought that anything could be extorted were treated with execrable cruelty. Holwell, unable to walk, was carried before the tyrant, who reproached him, threatened him, and sent him up the country in irons, together with some other gentlemen who were suspected of knowing more than they chose to tell about the treasures of the Company. These persons, still bowed down by the sufferings of that great agony, were lodged in miserable sheds, and fed only with grain and water, till at length the intercessions of the female relations of the Nabob procured their release.

“One Englishwoman had survived that night. She was placed in the harem of the prince at Moorshedabad.”

“It is told in history how the merciless Nabob was eventually called to strict account. The English at Madras vowed vengeance, and an expedition was forthwith fitted out for the Hugli, small in numbers, but full of undaunted spirit, and led by one of the most famous of British soldiers, Lord Clive. The victory of Plassy, which consolidated the British power in India, overthrew Surajah Dowlah, who expiated the crime of the Black Hole when captured and put to death by his successor Meer Jaffier.”

Port Blair Penal Colony, Andaman Islands, 1872 (today, a memorial rather than a prison.)

A tribal feud comes to the Andaman Prison:

“An atrocious murder which echoed through the whole world was that of the viceroy of India, Lord Mayo, who was killed by an Andaman convict in1872. The viceroy had visited Mount Harriet, a finely wooded slope rising above Port Blair and looking out over Viper Island with a glorious view eastward, in order to judge of its suitability as a sanatorium. He had just finished the descent. “The ship’s bells had just rung seven; the launch with steam up was whizzing at the jetty stairs; a group of her seamen were chatting on the pier-end. It was now quite dark, and the black line of the jungle seemed to touch the water’s edge. The viceroy’s party passed some large loose stones to the left of the head of the pier, and advanced along the jetty; two torchbearers in front.”

“The viceroy, preceding the rest, stepped quickly forward to descend the stairs to the launch. The next moment the people in the rear heard a noise, as of “the rush of some animal” from behind the loose stones; one or two saw a hand raised and a knife blade suddenly glisten in the torchlight. The viceroy’s private secretary heard a thud, and instantly turning round, found a man “fastened like a tiger” on the back of Lord Mayo.

“In a second twelve men were on the assassin; an English officer was pulling them off, and with his sword-hilt keeping back the native guards, who would have killed the assailant on the spot. The torches had gone out; but the viceroy, who had staggered over the pier-side, was dimly seen rising up in the knee-deep water, and clearing the hair off his brow with his hand as if recovering himself. His private secretary was instantly at his side in the surf, helping him up the bank. ‘Burne,’ he said quietly, ‘they’ve hit me.’ Then, in a louder voice, which was heard on the pier, ‘It’s all right, I don’t think I’m much hurt,’ or words to that effect.

“In another minute he was sitting under the smoky glare of the re-lit torches, on a rude native cart at the side of the jetty, his legs hanging loosely down. Then they lifted him bodily on to the cart, and saw a great dark patch on the back of his light coat. The blood came streaming out, and men tried to staunch it with their handkerchiefs. For a moment or two he sat up on the cart, then he fell heavily backwards. ‘Lift up my head,’ he said faintly, and said no more.”

Alfridi members of the Khyber Rifles, 1895

“The assassin, Sher Ali, was a very brave man belonging to one of the Afridi tribes, who had done excellent service to more than one commissioner at Peshawar and distinguished himself as a soldier. He was completely trusted by Colonel Reynolds Taylor, one of the best of our Indian officers, when at Peshawar, and was often in attendance on his family; in fact, he was the confidential servant of the house. This man, however, belonged to a society in which tribal feuds were a hereditary custom. Some such feud existed in his family and he was called upon to take his part in exacting a bloody vengeance for a quarrel. Had he committed the murder on his own side of the frontier, no notice could have been taken of it; and it would have been esteemed a legitimate deed sanctioned by the religious feelings and customs of the tribe; but his offence was committed within British territory and must be tried by British laws. He was convicted and sentenced to transportation to the Andamans instead of death, which he would greatly have preferred. Continually brooding under a sense of wrong, he took the first opportunity that offered for murderous retaliation and found the death he desired, on the gallows.”

Some observations on the Andamanese

Two Andamanese men

“Attempts to escape from the islands were at times frequent, encouraged by the easy access to the sea and the facility with which boats could be seized. But recaptures were also constantly made, and there were other chances against the fugitives, especially that of being run down by the aboriginal Andamanese. The natives of these islands are savages of a Nigrito race allied to the Papuans, but who, from having had no connection with the outer world for several centuries, have kept their blood absolutely pure. They are of small stature, the males a little under five feet in height, but finely made and well proportioned. In colour they are a jet black, and are among the darkest hued specimens of mankind. They are inveterate smokers, men, women and children, and are bright and intelligent, somewhat childish, petulant and quick tempered, but merry and light-hearted. They constitute a good unofficial guard, and as they constantly prowl round the convict settlements are a great deterrent to escape. 160 Being well used to jungle life, they are very successful trackers, who frequently bring back fugitives dead or alive. If by chance the evading convicts fall into the hands of the Jarawa tribe, their fate is sealed. These Jarawas are and always have been utterly irreclaimable; neither kindness nor force has had any appreciable effect in overcoming their unconquerable dislike to strangers, even of their own blood belonging to other tribes. Armed with bows and arrows, they show fight whenever encountered, and when pressed and punishment is attempted, they retire into the impenetrable jungle.”

EvX: I have posted about the inhabitants of the Andaman Islands before, including the world’s most isolated people, the Sentinelese.

An Amusing Approach to Jail-Keeping:

“At one time the Ratnagiri gaol contained about three hundred and sixty convicts; “at least two-thirds were Chinamen and Malays from the Straits, great ruffians, each with a record of piracy or murder, or both combined. Many of them were heavily fettered and carefully guarded by armed police when at their ordinary work in the ‘laterite’ quarries, for they were mostly powerful men;” the tools they used were formidable weapons and as there were known to be deadly feuds always present among them, serious disturbances and outbreaks were constantly dreaded. Nevertheless, misconduct was exceedingly rare; breaches of gaol discipline were much fewer among these desperadoes than among the milder Hindus in the work-sheds within the gaol. The fact having in due course created much surprise, inquiries were instituted as to why pirates and murderers, usually so insubordinate in other places, were so well-conducted and quiet at Ratnagiri.

“The riddle was presently solved. “For some  years one Sheik Kassam had been gaoler. Belonging to the fisherman class and possessed of very little education, he had, nevertheless, worked his way upward through the police by dint of honesty, hard work and a certain shrewdness which had more than once brought him to the front. At last, toward the end of his service, the gaolership falling vacant, he was, with everyone’s cordial approval, nominated to the post.”

“With comparative rest and improved pay, the old gentleman waxed fatter and jollier and was esteemed one of the most genial companions the country could produce. The cares of state, and the responsibility of three hundred murderous convicts, weighed lightly on Sheik Kassam. He developed a remarkable talent or predilection for gardening, almost from the first. “He laid out the quarry beds, brought water down to irrigate them, produced all the gaol required in the way of green stuff, and made tapioca and arrowroot by the ton. …

“Presently this favourite slice of garden was safely boxed in from the public view by an enclosure some eight feet high, extending from the gaol itself round to the gaoler’s house, the only entrance to it being a little wicket-gate by the side of the sheik’s back-yard.

“At last the head-superintendent of the Bombay prison heard that Sheik Kassam’s disciplinary system consisted in his bringing the most dangerous of the Chinamen and Malays quietly into his back-yard from the adjoining garden, and there regaling them with plenty of sweetmeats, sugar, drink in moderate quantity, and adding even the joys of female society of a peculiar sort. If any one became unruly or saucy, he was liable to get a dozen lashes, but if they behaved decently they all had their little festivals with regularity. After this discovery, poor old Sheik Kassam’s character as a model gaoler was gone; he was dismissed, but with a full pension which he did not live long to enjoy.”

EvX: Sounds like the fellow had a pretty good system.

That’s all for now. See you next Friday!


War is Code for the Production of Corpses

Quoting Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb:

“The end result of the complex organization that was the efficient software of the Great War was the manufacture of corpses.

This essentially industrial operation was fantasized by the generals as a “strategy of attrition.” The British tried to kill Germans, the Germans tried to kill British and French and so on, a “strategy” so familiar by now that it almost sounds normal. It was not normal in Europe before 1914 and no one in authority expected it to evolve, despite the pioneering lessons of the American Civil War. Once the trenches were in place, the long grave already dug (John Masefield’s bitterly ironic phrase), then the war stalemated and death-making overwhelmed any rational response.

“The war machine,” concludes Elliot, “rooted in law, organization, production, movement, science, technical ingenuity, with its product of six thousand deaths a day over a period of 1,500 days, was the permanent and realistic factor, impervious to fantasy, only slightly altered by human variation.”

No human institution, Elliot stresses, was sufficiently strong to resist the death machine. A new mechanism, the tank, ended the stalemate.”

Big Data describes another war of attrition:

McNamara epitomized the hyper-rational executive who relied on numbers rather than sentiments, and who could apply his quantitative skills to any industry he turned them to. In 1960 he was named president of Ford, a position he held for only a few weeks before being tapped to join President Kennedy’s cabinet as secretary of defense.

As the Vietnam conflict escalated and the United States sent more troops, it became clear that this was a war of wills, not of territory. America’s strategy was to pound the Viet Cong to the negotiation table. The way to measure progress, therefore, was by the number of enemy killed. The body count was published daily in the newspapers. To the war’s supporters it was proof of progress; to critics, evidence of its immorality. The body count was the data point that defined an era.

McNamara relied on the figures, fetishized them. … McNamara felt he could comprehend what was happening on the ground only by staring at a spreadsheet—at all those orderly rows and columns, calculations and charts, whose mastery seemed to bring him one standard deviation closer to God.

In 1977, two years after the last helicopter lifted off the rooftop of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, a retired Army general, Douglas Kinnard, published a landmark survey called The War Managers that revealed the quagmire of quantification. A mere 2 percent of America’s generals considered the body count a valid way to measure progress. “A fake—totally worthless,” wrote one general in his comments. “Often blatant lies,” wrote another. “They were grossly exaggerated by many units primarily because of the incredible interest shown by people like McNamara,” said a third.  — Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier, Big Data

Humans are reasonably smart creatures, but we so easily get stuck in terrible modes of thinking.

On a battlefield men die quickly, they fight back, they are sustained by fellowship and a sense of duty. Here I saw people dying in solitude by slow degrees, dying hideously, without the excuse of sacrifice for a cause. They had been trapped and left to starve, each in his home, by a political decision made in a far-off capital around conference and banquet tables. […] The most terrifying sights were the little children with skeleton limbs dangling from balloon – like abdomens. Starvation had wiped every trace of youth from their faces, turning them into tortured gargoyles; only in their eyes still lingered the reminder of childhood. Everywhere we found men and women lying prone, their faces and bellies bloated, their eyes utterly expressionless. Anger lashed my mind as I drove back to the village. Butter being sent abroad in the midst of the famine! In London, Berlin, Paris I could see with my mind’s eye people eating butter stamped with a Soviet trademark. “They must be rich to be able to send out butter,” I could hear them saying. “Here, friends, is the proof of socialism in action.” Driving through the fields, I did not hear the lovely Ukrainian songs so dear to my heart. These people had forgotten how to sing. I could hear only the groans of the dying, and the lip-smacking of fat foreigners enjoying our butter… — Kravchenko, Victor. I Chose Freedom: The Personal And Political Life Of A Soviet Official

Like human sacrifice and cannibalism:

The word tzompantli is Nahuatl and was used by the Aztecs to refer to the skull-racks found in many Aztec cities; The first and most prominent example is the Huey Tzompantli (Great Skull-rack) located the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and described by the early conquistadors. … Excavations at Templo Mayor in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan have revealed many skulls belonging to women and children, in addition to those of men, a demonstration of the diversity of the human sacrifices in Aztec culture.[15] After displaying severed heads, many scholars have determined that limbs of Aztec victims would be cannibalized [16]

… based on numbers given by Taipa and Fray Diego Durán, Bernard Ortiz de Montellano[18] has calculated that there were at most 60,000 skulls on the “Hueyi Tzompantli” (Great Skullrack) of Tenochtitlan. … There were at least five more skull racks in Tenochtitlan but by all accounts they were much smaller. —Wikipedia

All of the individual parts of a system can seem logical, and yet the end result can still be grotesque, inhuman, and insane.

I am on holiday so your normal Book Club post will resume next Wednesday.

A Modest Educational Proposal


Fellow humans, we have a problem. (And another problem.)

At least, this looks like a problem to me., especially when I’m trying to make conversation at the local moms group.

There are many potential reasons the data looks like this (including inaccuracy, though my lived experience says it is accurate.) Our culture encourages people to limit their fertility, and smart women are especially so encouraged. Smart people are also better at long-term planning and doing things like “reading the instructions on the birth control.”

But it seems likely that there is another factor, an arrow of causation pointing in the other direction: smart people tend to stay in school for longer, and people dislike having children while they are still in school. While you are in school, you are in some sense still a child, and we have a notion that children shouldn’t beget children.

Isaac Newton. Never married. Probably a virgin.

People who drop out of school and start having children at 16 tend not to be very smart and also tend to have plenty of children during their child-creating years. People who pursue post-docs into their thirties tend to be very smart–and many of them are virgins.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I kind of like having smart people around, especially the kinds of people who invent refrigerators and make supply chains work so I can enjoy eating food, even though I live in a city, far from any farms. I don’t want to live in a world where IQ is crashing and we can no longer maintain complex technological systems.

We need to completely re-think this system where the smarter you are, the longer you are expected to stay in school, accruing debt and not having children.

Proposal one: Accelerated college for bright students. Let any student who can do college-level work begin college level work for college credits, even if they are still in high (or middle) school. There are plenty of bright students out there who could be completing their degrees by 18.

The entirely framework of schooling probably ought to be sped up in a variety of ways, especially for bright students. The current framework often reflects the order in which various discoveries were made, rather than the age at which students are capable of learning the material. For example, negative numbers are apparently not introduced in the math curriculum until 6th grade, even though, in my experience, even kindergarteners are perfectly capable of understanding the concept of “debt.” If I promise to give you one apple tomorrow, then I have “negative one apple.” There is no need to hide the concept of negatives for 6 years.

Proposal two: More apprenticeship.

In addition to being costly and time-consuming, a college degree doesn’t even guarantee that your chosen field will still be hiring when you graduate. (I know people with STEM degrees who graduated right as the bubble burst. Ouch.) We essentially want our educational system to turn out people who are highly skilled at highly specialized trades, and capable of turning around and becoming highly skilled at another highly specialized trade on a dime if that doesn’t work out. This leads to chemists returning to university to get law degrees; physicists to go back for medical degrees. We want students to have both “broad educations” so they can get hired anywhere, and “deep educations” so they’ll actually be good at their jobs.

Imagine, instead, a system where highschool students are allowed to take a two-year course in preparation for a particular field, at the end of which high performers are accepted into an apprenticeship program where the continue learning on the job. At worst, these students would have a degree, income, and job experience by the age of 20, even if they decided they now wanted to switch professions or pursue an independent education.

Proposal three: Make childbearing normal for adult students.

There’s no reason college students can’t get married and have children (aside from, obviously, their lack of jobs and income.) College is not more time consuming or physically taxing than regular jobs, and college campuses tend to be pretty pleasant places. Studying while pregnant isn’t any more difficult than working while pregnant.

Grad students, in particular, are old and mature enough to get married and start families, and society should encourage them to do so.

Proposal four: stop denigrating child-rearing, especially for intelligent women.

Children are a lot of work, but they’re also fun. I love being with my kids. They are my family and an endless source of happiness.

What people want and value, they will generally strive to obtain.


These are just some ideas. What are yours?

Anthropology Friday: Oriental Prisons pt 1: Thuggee

Group of Thugs, India, 1894

Welcome to Anthropology Friday. This month’s pick is more history than anthropology, but hopefully still interesting: The History and Romance of Crime: Oriental Prisons, by Arthur Griffiths, 1838-1908. I am not sure when the book was published, but I believe it was sometime in the early 1900s, for Griffiths mentions events that occurred up to 1899 and died in 1908.

Griffiths was a British prison administrator and inspector who wrote over 60 books, many of them mysteries or military histories–and many of them about prisons. According to Wikipedia:

Griffiths was born on 9 Dec. 1838, at Poona, India, the second son of Lieut.-colonel John Griffiths of the 6th Royal Warwickshire regiment. After graduating from King William’s College on the Isle of Man, Arthur Griffiths joined the British Army as an ensign in the 63rd Regiment of Foot on 13 Feb. 1855.

Serving in the Crimean War, Griffiths participated in the siege of Sevastopol. He also fought during the capture of Kinbum, receiving the British Crimea medal.

Today’s excerpts pertain to crime in India, chiefly that of thuggee, the semi-ritualized murder of travelers by a group known as the Thugs.

In General:

“Crime in India does not differ essentially from that prevalent elsewhere, although some forms are indigenous to the country, engendered by special physical and social conditions. As a rule, the people of India are law abiding, orderly and sober in character, but there is an inherent deceitfulness in them that tends to interfere with the course of justice.”

On the smuggling of money into the Montgomery jail in Punjab, one of the largest in India:

“The prisoners become very clever and use all sorts of devices to smuggle in coins, tobacco, opium and other drugs and dice. They are allowed to wear their own shoes, but these are examined very carefully, for the soles are frequently found to be made of tobacco, four-anna pieces and other things than leather.

““A common dodge,” says Captain Buck, “among the prisoners for concealing coins and other small things is to make a receptacle in the throat by means of a leaden weight about the diameter of a florin and half an inch thick; this is attached to a string some six inches long, a knot in the end being slipped between two teeth to prevent it sliding down the throat. By holding the head in a particular position for some time every day, ‘waggling’ the weight about, and from time to time altering the length of the string, a pouch can be formed in the throat suitable for holding as many as fifteen rupees. The possessor of this strange ‘safe’ is able to put in and take out his treasure with facility, but it is exceedingly difficult to make a man disgorge the contents against his will, or even to find out whether he possesses the pouch at all without the use of the Röntgen rays.” [X-rays]


“When England’s work in India is reviewed in the time to come, full credit must be given to the humane administration which sternly suppressed the atrocious malpractices that so long afflicted the land, such as “Suttee,” or the burning of widows on the funeral pyre; the human sacrifices to the bloodthirsty idol of Jagannath; “Thuggee,” that vile organisation for secret murder which devastated the entire continent and killed so many unsuspecting victims. … It was fostered by the prevailing conditions in a vast extent of territory, divided among many princes and powers, each ruling independently and irresponsibly, with many kinds of governments, and with their hands one against the other, having no common interests, no desire for combination, no united police, no uniform action in the repression of determined wrong-doing. Everything conspired to favour the growth of these daring and unscrupulous land pirates.

“There were no roads in those early days, no public conveyances, no means of protection for travellers. The longest journeys from one end of the continent to the other were undertaken of necessity on foot or on horseback; parties hitherto complete strangers banded together for common security, and mixed unreservedly with one another. … it was possible to wander into by-paths and get lost among the forests, jungles, mountains and uncultivated tracts where but few sparsely inhabited villages were scattered. Direct encouragement was thus afforded to freebooters and highwaymen to make all travellers their prey, and many classes of robbers existed and flourished. Of these the most numerous, the most united, the most secret in their horrible operations, the most dangerous and destructive were the Thugs.

“The origin of Thuggee, as it was commonly called, is lost in fable and obscurity. Mr. James Hutton, in his popular account of the Thugs, thinks that they are of very ancient date and says they are “reputed to have sprung from the Sagartii who contributed eight thousand horse to the army of Xerxes and are mentioned by Herodotus in his history. These people led a pastoral life, were originally of Persian descent and use the Persian language; their dress is something betwixt a Persian and a Pactyan; they have no offensive weapons, either of iron or brass, except their daggers; their principal dependence in action is on cords made of twisted leather which they use in this manner. When they engage an enemy they throw out this cord having a noose at the extremity; if they entangle in this either horse or man, they without difficulty put them to death.” …

“In the latter part of the seventeenth century Thevenot speaks of a strange denomination of robbers who infest the road between Delhi and Agra and who use “a certain rope with a running noose which they could cast with so much sleight about a man’s neck when they are within reach of 50 him, that they never fail; so that they strangle him in a trice.” These robbers were divided into seven principal classes or families from which the innumerable smaller bands sprang.”

EvX: According to Wikipedia, Thugs have been known as organized bands of criminals in India for at least 600 years. The earliest known reference to their activities dates from 1356, in Ziyā-ud-Dīn Baranī‘s History of Fīrūz Shāh:

In the reign of that sultan [about 1290], some Thugs were taken in Delhi, and a man belonging to that fraternity was the means of about a thousand being captured. But not one of these did the sultan have killed. He gave orders for them to be put into boats and to be conveyed into the lower country, to the neighbourhood of Lakhnauti, where they were to be set free. The Thugs would thus have to dwell about Lakhnauti and would not trouble the neighbourhood of Delhi any more.

The strangest part about the story of the Thugs is that it is basically, as far as I know, true. There really was a secret cult, probably descended from Muslims who’d started worshipping Kali (somehow) and went around murdering people as part of their “religion” and more-or-less way of life. Wikipedia recounts:

Membership was sometimes passed from father to son, as part of a criminal underclass. The leadership of established Thug groups tended to be hereditary, as the group evolved into a criminal tribe. Other men would become acquainted with a Thug band and hope to be recruited, as Thugs were respected by the criminal community and had a camaraderie of numbers and shared experience. Robbery became less a question of solving problems associated with poverty and more a profession.

Back to Griffiths:

“At all times many hundreds of predatory castes existed in India, chiefly among the marauding hill and forest people, and some of them are still recorded by name in the census papers. These people lived openly by plunder, and were organised for crime, and for determined gang-robbery and murder. There was no established police in those days equal to coping with these gangs, and the government of the East India Company had recourse to the savage criminal code of the Mohammedan law.

“When Warren Hastings was governor-general, he decreed that every convicted gang-robber should be publicly executed in full view of his village, and that all of the villagers should be fined. The miscreants retaliated by incendiarism on a large scale. One conflagration in Calcutta in 1780 burned fifteen thousand houses, and some two thousand souls perished in the flames. A special civil department was created to deal with this wholesale crime, the character of which is described in a state paper dated 1772. “The gang-robbers of Bengal,” it says, “are not like the robbers in England, individuals driven to such desperate courses by want or greed. They are robbers by profession and even by birth. They are formed into regular communities, and their families subsist on the supplies they bring home to them. These spoils come from great distances, and peaceful villages three hundred miles up the Ganges are supported by housebreaking in Calcutta.”

EvX: Here is a version of the origin myth of the Thugs:

Once on a time the world was infested with a monstrous demon… who devoured mankind as fast as they were created… Kali cut the demon with her sword… but from every drop of blood that fell to the ground there sprang a new demon. She paused for a while, and from the sweat, brushed off one of her arms, she created two men, to whom she gave a rumal, or handkerchief, and commanded them to strangle the demons. When they had slain them all, they offered to return the rumal, but the goddess bade them keep it and transmit it to their posterity, with the injunction to destroy all men who were not of their kindred.

She condescended to present them with one of her teeth for a pickaxe, a rib for a knife, and the hem of her skirt for a noose, and ordered them, fo the futuer, to cut and bury the dbodies of whom they destoryed.

“In the early part of the nineteenth century the audacity and murderous activity of the Thugs increased to such a fearful extent that the British government was roused to serious consideration. … Mr. Brown, when engaged in his inquiry at a village named Sujuna, on the road to Hatta, heard a horrible story of a gang-robbery in the neighbourhood. A party of two hundred Thugs had encamped in a grove in the early morning of the cold season of 1814, when seven men, well-armed with swords and matchlocks, passed, conveying treasure from a bank in Jubbulpore to its correspondent in Banda. The treasure was ascertained to be of the value of 4,500 rupees, and a number of Thugs, well-mounted, gave chase. Coming up with their prey at a distance of seven miles, in a water course half a mile from Sujuna, they attacked the treasure-bearers with their swords, contrary to their common practice of strangling their victims, the latter plan being possible only when the objects of their desire were taken unawares. Moreover, the robbers left the bodies where they lay, unburied and exposed, which was also an unusual proceeding. A passing traveller, who had seen the murderers at work, was also put to death to prevent his giving the alarm. As much rain fell that day, none of the villagers approached the spot till the following morning, when the bodies were discovered and a large crowd came to gaze at them.

“Great difficulty was experienced in bringing home the crime to its perpetrators. This often happened in such cases from the strong reluctance of people to give evidence and appear in court for the purpose; even the banker who had lost his cash hesitated to come forward and prove his loss, and this was no isolated case. …

“Sir William Sleeman has left a personal record of his own achievements. “While I was in the civil charge of the district of Nursingpoor, in the valley of the Nurbudda, in the years 1822, 1823 and 1824,” he tells us, “no ordinary robbery or theft could be committed without my becoming acquainted with it; nor was there a robber or a thief of the ordinary kind in the district, with whose character I had not become acquainted in the discharge of my duty as magistrate; and if any man had then told me that a gang of assassins by profession resided in the village of Kundelee, not four hundred yards from my court, and that the extensive groves of the village of Mundesur, only one stage from me, on the road to Saugor and Bhopaul, were one of the greatest beles, or places of murder, in all India; and that large gangs from Hindustan and the Dukhun used to rendezvous in these groves, remain in them for days together every year, and carry on their dreadful trade along all the lines of road that pass by and branch off from them, with the knowledge and connivance of the two landholders by whose ancestors these groves had been planted, I should have thought him a fool or a madman; and yet nothing could have been more true. The bodies of a hundred travellers lie buried in and around the groves of Mundesur; and a gang of assassins lived in and about the village of Kundelee while I was magistrate of the district, and extended their depredations to the cities of Poona and Hyderabad.”

“…in the cantonment of Hingolee, the leader of the Thugs of that district, Hurree Singh, was a respectable merchant of the place, with whom Captain Sleeman, in common with many other English officers, had constant dealings. On one occasion this man applied to the officer in civil charge of the district, Captain Reynolds, for a pass to bring some cloths from Bombay, which he knew were on their way accompanied by their owner, a merchant of a town not far from Hingolee. He murdered this person, his attendants and cattle-drivers, brought the merchandise up to Hingolee under the pass he had obtained and sold it openly in the cantonment; nor would this ever have been discovered had he not confessed it after his apprehension, and gloried in it as a good joke.”

EvX: This is why market-dominant minorities evolved. You’re going to have a hard time shipping goods from place to place if your business contacts keep murdering you for not being part of their ethnic group.

“Many persons were murdered in the very bazaar of the cantonment, within one hundred yards from the main guard, by Hurree Singh and his gang, and were buried hardly five hundred yards from the line of sentries. Captain Sleeman was himself present at the opening of several of these unblessed graves (each containing several bodies), which were pointed out by the “approvers,” one by one, in the coolest possible manner, to those who were assembled, until the spectators were sickened and gave up further search in disgust. The place was the dry channel of a small water course, communicating with the river, no broader or deeper than a ditch; it was near the road to a neighbouring village, and one of the main outlets from the cantonment to the country….

“Accounts of such affairs, as found in contemporary records, might be multiplied indefinitely. Colonel Sleeman’s report of the Thug depredations for a year or two when they were most virulent—1836-37—fills one large volume. On a map which he made of a portion of the kingdom of Oude, showing a territory one hundred miles wide from north to south, and one hundred and seventy miles from east to west, are marked an endless number of spots between Lucknow, Cawnpore, Manickpur, Pertabgurh and Fyzabad, all of them indicating beles or scenes of murders perpetrated.”

EvX: The photo is fuzzy, but I believe the map in this slideshow, or one very like it, is the one Griffiths is referencing. The rest of the slide show is interesting and relevant.

Since Thugs tended to be related to each other, Sleeman also constructed genealogical trees of thuggee families, like the one above.

Back to the book:

Behram, Thug leader responsible for the murder of 931 people, 125 of them personally.

“These places were pointed out by captured Thugs and “approvers” who had been actively present and taken part in the murders. There were some 274 beles in all, or one for about every five miles; the fact was proved by the continual disinterment of skulls and skeletons of the often nameless victims. Each recorded great atrocities and many wholesale murders. The number of deaths for which each Thug miscreant was personally responsible seems incredible. One man, Buhran by name, killed 931 victims in forty years of active Thuggee, and another, Futteh Khan, killed 508 persons in twenty years, making an average of two monthly for each assassin. …

“When and how Thuggee began may not be definitely known, but it is certain that its votaries always attributed a divine origin to the practice. They esteemed the wholesale taking of life to which they were vowed a pious act, performed under the immediate orders and protection of the Hindu goddess, indifferently called Devee or Durga, Kali or Bhowanee. Murder was in fact a religious rite, the victim being a sacrifice to the deity. The strangler was troubled with no remorse; on the contrary, he gloried in his deed as the pious act of a devout worshipper. He prepared his murders without misgiving, perpetrated them without emotions of pity, and looked back upon them with satisfaction, not regret.

“The Thugs gave free vent to some of the worst passions of perverse humanity; they were treacherous, underhanded, pitiless to those they deemed their legitimate prey. But yet they were seldom guilty of wanton cruelty; the pain they inflicted was only that caused by depriving a human being of life. It was a rule with them never to murder women, and they generally spared infant children whom they adopted, bringing them up in their traditions. Even if a woman was doomed to suffer she was most scrupulously preserved from insult beforehand, either by act or word. In private life they were patterns of domestic virtue, affectionate to their own families, fond of their homes; well conducted, law abiding subjects of the state that gave them shelter.”

EvX: To be fair, so are Mafia dons.

The HBD Question:

“General Hervey quotes a curious instance of the heredity of the criminal instinct which showed itself in the descendants of the old Thugs settled at Jubbulpore, in the days of the active pursuit of these murderers by Sir William Sleeman. A generation of young Thugs had grown up around the School of Industry, a kind of reformatory for the offspring of the captured criminals, and the careers of some of these have been followed. Many of the youths found employment with European gentlemen as private servants, and in one particular instance the inherited propensity was curiously illustrated.

“A railway engineer, Mr. Upham, employed in the construction of the Indian Peninsula Railway, was stationed at Sleemanabad near Jubbulpore. Returning home one evening, much fatigued after a long tour of inspection, he lay down to rest on his bed and from his tent, the curtain of which was raised for ventilation, he saw two of his table servants—both of them lads from the reformatory—engaged in cooking his dinner. He presently noticed that they squeezed into the pot on the fire certain green pods they had plucked from a neighbouring bush, and presuming they were herbs of some sort added for flavour, he said nothing, but he was curious and having little appetite he dined very lightly, chiefly on rice and milk. He picked some of the pods, however, and put them in his pocket, where they remained till next day, when he became ill and rode over to see the doctor. He fainted when he reached the doctor’s office. Restoratives being promptly applied, he so far recovered as to be able to produce the pods which the doctor at once pronounced to be of datura. Suspicion thus aroused, the two servants were arrested and brought to trial, when the head cook was convicted and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. This boy was of the old Thug stock, and obviously the desire to destroy human life was in his blood, brought out by greed; for the object was, of course, to rob Mr. Upham while he was unconscious.

“They were apparently irreclaimable, these Thug children. One boy was detained in prison until grown up in the hope that he would prove well-conducted. All his relations had been Thugs; his father (who had been executed), his uncles, brothers and forebears for several generations, and numbers of them had suffered the extreme penalty. He was cognisant of their misdeeds and the retribution that overtook them, but his own inclinations lay the same way, and no sooner was he at large than he embraced the evil trade and was soon known as a jemadar with an increasing reputation as a daring leader of Dacoits. Eventually he was won over to the side of justice and did good service as an “approver.” ”

EvX: “Dacoit” is Indian for bandit; I do not know if it has any other connotations. Among the list of “famous dacoits” on wikipedia is Phoolan Devi, the “bandit queen” and later a member of the Indian Parliament:

Born into a low caste family in rural Uttar Pradesh, Phoolan endured poverty as a child and had an unsuccessful marriage before taking to a life of crime. … She was the only woman in that gang, and her relationship with one gang member, coupled with other minor factors, caused a gunfight between gang members. Phoolan’s lover was killed in that gunfight. The victorious rival faction, who were upper-caste Rajputs, took Phoolan to their village of Behmai, confined her in a room, and took turns to rape her repeatedly over several days. After escaping (or being let off), Phoolan rejoined the remnants of her dead lover’s faction, took another lover from among those men, and continued with banditry. A few months later, her new gang descended upon the village of Behmai to exact revenge for what she had suffered.[2][3] As many as twenty-two Rajput men belonging to that village were lined up in a row and shot dead by Phoolan’s gang.

Since Phoolan was a low-caste woman, and her victims were high-caste men, the press portrayed the Behmai massacre as an act of righteous lower-caste rebellion. The respectful sobriquet ‘Devi’ was conferred upon her by the media and public at this point.[4]

Phoolan evaded capture for two years after the Behmai massacre before she and her few surviving gang-members surrendered to the police in 1983. She was charged with forty-eight major crimes, including multiple murders, plunder, arson and kidnapping for ransom.[5] Phoolan spent the next eleven years in jail… In 1994, the state government headed by Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party summarily withdrew all charges against her, and Phoolan was released.[5] She then stood for election to parliament as a candidate of the Samajwadi Party and was twice elected to the Lok Sabha as the member for Mirzapur. In 2001, she was shot dead at the gates of her official bungalow (allotted to her as MP) in New Delhi by former rival bandits whose kinsmen had been slaughtered at Behmai by her gang.

That’s enough for today. Remember, Hobbes was right. See you next Friday for the next installment.

Book Club: The Code Economy: The DNA of Business

“DNA builds products with a purpose. So do people.” –Auerswald, The Code Economy

McDonald’s is the world’s largest restaurant chain by revenue[7], serving over 69 million customers daily in over 100 countries[8] across approximately 36,900 outlets as of 2016.[9] … According to a BBC report published in 2012, McDonald’s is the world’s second-largest private employer (behind Walmart with 1.9 million employees), 1.5 million of whom work for franchises. …

There are currently a total of 5,669 company-owned locations and 31,230 franchised locations… Notably, McDonald’s has increased shareholder dividends for 25 consecutive years,[18] making it one of the S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats.[19][20]

According to Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser (2001), nearly one in eight workers in the U.S. have at some time been employed by McDonald’s. … Fast Food Nation also states that McDonald’s is the largest private operator of playgrounds in the U.S., as well as the single largest purchaser of beef, pork, potatoes, and apples.  (Wikipedia)

How did a restaurant whose only decent products are french fries and milkshakes come to dominate the global corporate landscape?

IKEA is not only the world’s largest furniture store, but also among the globe’s top 10 retailers of anything and the 25th most beloved corporation. (Disney ranks number one.) Even I feel a strange, heartwarming emotion at the thought of IKEA, which somehow comes across as a sweet and kind multi-national behemoth.

In The Code Economy, Auerswald suggests that the secret to McDonald’s success isn’t (just) the french fries and milkshake machines:

Kroc opened his first McDonald’s restaurant in 1955 in Des Plaines, California. Within five years he had opened two hundred new franchises across the country. [!!!] He pushed his operators obsessively to adhere to a system that reinforced the company motto: “Quality, service, cleanliness, and value.”

h/t @simongerman600

Quoting Kroc’s1987 autobiography,

“It’s all interrelated–our development of the restaurant, the training, the marketing advice, the product development, the research that has gone into each element of the equipment package. Together with our national advertising and continuing supervisory assistance, it forms an invaluable support system. Individual operators pay 11.5 percent of their gross to the corporation for all of this…”

The process of operating a McDonald’s franchise was engineered to be as cognitively undemanding as possible. …

Kroc created a program that could be broken into subroutines…. Acting like the DNA of the organization, the manual allowed the Speedee Service System to function in a variety of environments without losing essential structure or function.

McDonald’s is big because it figured out how to reproduce.

source: Statista

I’m not sure why IKEA is so big (I don’t think it’s a franchise like McDonald’s,) but based on the information posted on their walls, it’s because of their approach to furniture design. First, think of a problem, eg, People Need Tables. Second, determine a price–IKEA makes some very cheap items and some pricier items, to suit different customers’ needs. Third, use Standard IKEA Wooden Pieces to design a nice-looking table. Fourth, draw the assembly instructions, so that anyone, anywhere, can assemble the furniture themselves–no translation needed.

IKEA furniture is kind of like Legos, in that much of it is made of very similar pieces of wood assembled in different ways. The wooden boards in my table aren’t that different in size and shape from the ones in my dresser nor the ones in my bookshelf, though the items themselves have pretty different dimensions. So on the production side, IKEA lowers costs by producing not actual furniture, but collections of boards. Boards are easy to make–sawmills produce tons of them.

Furniture is heavy, but mostly empty space. By contrast, piles of boards stack very neatly and compactly, saving space both in shipping and when buyers are loading the boxes into their cars. (I am certain that IKEA accounts for common car dimensions in designing and packing their furniture.)

And the assembly instruction allow the buyer to ultimately construct the furniture.

In other words, IKEA has hit upon a successful code that allows them to produce many different designs from a few basic boards and ship them efficiently–keeping costs low and allowing them to thrive.

From Anatomy of an IKEA product:

The company is also looking for ways to maximize warehouse efficiency.

“We have (only) two pallet sizes,” Marston said, referring to the wooden platforms on which goods are placed. “Our warehouses are dimensioned and designed to hold these two pallet sizes. It’s all about efficiencies because that helps keep the price of innovation down.”

In Europe, some IKEA warehouses utilize robots to “pick the goods,” a term of art for grabbing products off very high shelves.

These factories, Marston said, are dark, since no lighting is needed for the robots, and run 24 hours a day, picking and moving goods around.

“You (can) stand on a catwalk,” she said, “and you look out at this huge warehouse with 12 pallets (stacked on top of each other) and this robot’s running back and forth running on electronic eyebeams.”

IKEA’s code and McDonald’s code are very different, but both let the companies produce the core items they sell quickly, cheaply, and efficiently.

In The Code Economy, Chapter 8: Evolution, discusses the rise of Tollhouse Cookies, McDonald’s, the difference between natural and artificial objects, and the development of evolutionary theory from Darwin through Watson and Crick and through to Kauffman and Levine’s 1987 paper, “Toward a General Theory of Adaptive Walks on Rugged Landscapes.” (With a brief stop at Erwin Shrodinger along the way.)

The difficulty with evolution is that systems are complicated; successful mutations or even just combinations of existing genes must work synergistically with all of the other genes and systems already operating in the body. A mutation that increases IQ by tweaking neurons in a particular way might have the side effect of causing neurons outside the brain to malfunction horribly; a mutation that protects against sickle-cell anemia when you have one copy of it might just kill you itself if you have two copies.

Auerswald quotes Kauffman and Levin:

“Natural selection does not work as an engineer works… It works like a tinkereer–a tinkerer who does not know exactly what he is going to produce but uses… everything at his disposal to produce some kind of workable object.” This process is progressive, moving form simpler to more complex forms: “Evolution doe not produce novelties from scratch. It works on what already exists, either transforming a system to give it new functions or combining several systems to produce a more elaborate one [as] during the passage from unicellular to multicellular forms.”


The Kauffman and Levin model was as simple as it was powerful. Imagine a genetic code of length N, where each gene might occupy one of two possible “states”–for example, “o” and “i” in a binary computer. The difficulty of the evolutionary problem was tunable with the parameter K, which represented the average number of interactions among genes. The NK model, as it came to be called, was able to reproduce a number of measurable features of evolution in biological systems. Evolution could be represented as a genetic walk on a fitness landscape, in which increasing complexity was now a central parameter.

You may remember my previous post on Local Optima, Diversity, and Patchwork:

Local optima–or optimums, if you prefer–are an illusion created by distance. A man standing on the hilltop at (approximately) X=2 may see land sloping downward all around himself and think that he is at the highest point on the graph. But hand him a telescope, and he discovers that the fellow standing on the hilltop at X=4 is even higher than he is. And hand the fellow at X=4 a telescope, and he’ll discover that X=6 is even higher.

A global optimum is the best possible way of doing something; a local optimum can look like a global optimum because all of the other, similar ways of doing the same thing are worse.

Some notable examples of cultures that were stuck at local optima but were able, with exposure, to jump suddenly to a higher optima: The “opening of Japan” in the late 1800s resulted in breakneck industrialization and rising standards of living; the Cherokee invented their own alphabet (technically a syllabary) after glimpsing the Roman one, and achieved mass literacy within decades; European mathematics and engineering really took off after the introduction of Hindu-Arabic numerals and the base-ten system.

If we consider each culture its own “landscape” in which people (and corporations) are finding locally optimal solutions to problems, then it becomes immediately obvious that we need both a large number of distinct cultures working out their own solutions to problems and occasional communication and feedback between those cultures so results can transfer. If there is only one, global, culture, then we only get one set of solutions–and they will probably be sub-optimal. If we have many cultures but they don’t interact, we’ll get tons of solutions, and many of them will be sub-optimal. But many cultures developing their own solutions and periodically interacting can develop many solutions and discard sub-optimal ones for better ones.

On a related note, Gore Burnelli writes: How Nassim Taleb changed my mind about religion:

Life constantly makes us take decisions under conditions of uncertainty. We can’t simply compute every possible outcome, and decide with perfect accuracy what the path forward is. We have to use heuristics. Religion is seen as a record of heuristics that have worked in the past. …

But while every generation faces new circumstances, there are also some common problems that every living being is faced with: survival and reproduction, and these are the most important problems because everything else depends on them. Mess with these, and everything else becomes irrelevant.

This makes religion an evolutionary record of solutions which persisted long enough, by helping those who held them to persist.

This is not saying “All religions are perfect and good and we should follow them,” but it is suggesting, “Traditional religions (and cultures) have figured out ways to solve common problems and we should listen to their ideas.”

From Ray Kurzweil

Back in The Code Economy, Auerswald asks:

Might the same model, derived from evolutionary biology, explain the evolution of technology?

… technology may also be nothing else but the capacity for invariant reproduction. However, in order for more complex forms of technology to be viable over time, technology also must possess a capacity for learning and adaptation.

Evolutionary theory as applied to the advance of code is the focus of the next chapter. Kauffman and Levin’s NK model ends up providing a framework for studying the creation and evolution of code. Learning curves act as the link between biology and economics.

Will the machines become sentient? Or McDonald’s? And which should we worry about?

Thou Shalt Not Wirehead: Religion vs Gratification

Humans are just smart enough to wirehead themselves, but stupid enough to do it very badly. For example, over in South Africa, addicts are trying to develop a new variety of AIDS by combining heroin, antiretroviral drugs, and other random crap like “crushed glass” or “cleaning detergent,” injecting it, then drawing their drug-laced blood and injecting that blood into a second person for a secondary high:

Mary Mashapa estimates that one person in every five in this community uses nyaope [the drug] – and she says they will try anything to get a fix. …

An articulate young man called Thabo told us drug users have started to sell – or share – their blood with other addicts in Dieplsoot. The practice is known locally as ‘bluetooth’. …

Thabo inserted nyaope into the vein of his friend Bennet, then immediately withdrew a small amount of his friend’s blood which he re-injected into his arm. “I’ve just bluetoothed, eh,” said Thabo with a look of relief on his face.

“I gave my friend a hit and took one from his blood, you know …”

What about your health, HIV, what about sharing needles? I asked.

“I’ll cross that bridge when I get there,” he replied.

You know, if people are going to try that hard to give themselves AIDS, maybe other people should stop giving them anti-retroviral drugs.

And I thought Siberians drinking each other’s urine to get a psychedelic mushroom high was bad enough. Can you imagine Shaka Zulu witnessing what has become of these Black South Africans? Injecting themselves with pain killers and detergent so they can sway like zombies for a few hours? He would have had them executed.

Drugs aren’t just a Black South African thing. Whites have meth. African Americans have crack. Asians have opium in its various forms. Suburban housewives have wine. Mexicans and Russians have krokodil, which rots off your genitals:

Public authorities in Mexico shared details of a gruesome case of the flesh-eating drug krokodil, the first to be officially reported in the state of Jalisco.

According to José Sotero Ruiz Hernández, an official with Mexico’s National Institute of Migration, a 17-year-old [American tourist] in Puerto Vallarta presented lacerations to her genitals that she said were caused by her addiction to krokodil.

“The young woman who used this drug had an infection that had rotted her genitals…

The woman told authorities that the drug was readily available on street corners. …

Krokodil is a street drug with effects similar to heroin that is made by cooking crushed codeine pills with household chemicals. It is significantly cheaper than heroin, and reportedly ten times as potent. However, the impurities in the drug damage vascular tissue, which causes the flesh to rot.

Repeat after me: don’t inject random crap into your genitals. Nor anywhere else on your body.

Meanwhile in America, librarians are learning how to save the lives of overdosed meth and other opioid addicts:

Long viewed as guardians of safe spaces for children, library staff members like Kowalski have begun taking on the role of first responder in drug overdoses. In at least three major cities — Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco — library employees now know, or are set to learn, how to use the drug naloxone, usually known by its brand name Narcan, to help reverse overdoses.

Their training tracks with the disastrous national rise in opioid use and an apparent uptick of overdoses in libraries, which often serve as daytime havens for homeless people and hubs of services in impoverished communities.

In the past two years, libraries in Denver, San Francisco, suburban Chicago and Reading, Pennsylvania have become the site of fatal overdoses. …

“[Kowalkski’s] not a paramedic,” the guard, Sterling Davis, said later. “She’s just a teen-adult librarian — and saved six people since April. That’s a lot for a librarian.”

I… I need a minute. These articles are kind of heavy. The Portland library, too.

I don’t think librarians should have that responsibility. Like suicide, I’m not sure that trying to stop people from dying when they themselves so clearly don’t care is not necessarily good for them or society.

On the other hand, I have a good friend who did nearly die of alcohol addiction on numerous occasions and is now sober and glad to be alive. People don’t start using drugs because they want to die.

Ironically, most people get into drugs socially–they get a joint from a friend or start drinking at a party–but addiction and death separate you from everyone else and are, ultimately, dealt with alone.

Let’s talk about religion.

One of the features of religion is it generally discourages wireheading in favor of investing in long-term reproduction and growth. Utilitarians might come to the conclusion that wireheading is good, but religions–especially conservative religions–almost universally condemn it:

“Thou shalt not wirehead.”

We can include here not just drugs, but other forms of instant gratification. Promiscuous sex, wasteful status signaling, laziness, etc., are all discouraged by most religions. A great deal indeed has been written on the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth; and a bit less on their less famous cousins, the Seven Virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope and charity. All of these sins fritter away wealth, time, health, or the well-being of others, while the virtues emphasize the benefits of delayed gratification.

In a normal social system, people often feel pressured to imitate others in wasteful or harmful ways, such as by drinking excessively at parties because “everyone else is doing it,” having unprotected sex that leads to unwanted pregnancy or disease because “men won’t date you if you won’t put out,” or spending money they really ought to be saving in order to signal social status, otherwise “people will look down on you.”

Religions provide an alternative social system which solves the collective action problem by top-down dictating that everyone has to stop wireheading or otherwise being wasteful because “God says so.” The religious system allows people to signal “I am a devout person,” sidestepping the normal signaling process. Thus, instead of feeling like “I am a socially awkward weirdo because I don’t get drunk at parties,” people feel “I am good and virtuous because I don’t get drunk at parties,” (and other religious people will see the teetotaller in the same positive light.)

So religious groups feature quite prominently in anti-drug therapy groups (Alcoholics Anonymous, most famously.) Seventh Day Adventists enjoy some of the world’s longest life expectancies because of their religion’s emphasis on “clean living,” (probably most attributable to not smoking, possibly also the vegetarianism.) Islam forbids alcohol; Judaism and Christianity generally encourage people to drink responsibly. When you control for national SES, religious people are healthier overall than non-religious ones.

Religions also encourage people to be thrifty and hard-working, putting their efforts into having more children rather than drugs or fancy cars. Religious people tend to have high fertility rates–the humble Amish are growing at a tremendous rate, having nearly doubled their population in the past two decades–and have been doing so for most of the past century. The Amish are the meek and they shall inherit the Earth, or at least our part of it. (Similarly, Israel is the only developed country in the world with a fertility rate above replacement.)

A sudden religious change can help overturn otherwise sticky, horrific traditions, like cannibalism, human sacrifice, and revenge killing, by suddenly supplanting the old social system whose internal logic demanded the continuance of the old ways. For example, in many areas of Australia/Melanesia, any time anyone died an accidental death, some other person was accused of having used witchcraft to murder them and summarily executed by the tribe. Christianity did away with these revenge killings by simultaneously teaching that witchcraft isn’t real and that murderers should be forgiven.

Religion also helps people cooperate in Prisoner’s Dilemma type situations–“Why should I trust you?” “Because God will send me to Hell and I’ll burn for eternity if I betray your trust.” “Oh, okay then.”

If you signal belief in God strongly enough, then you signal also your trustworthiness. I don’t think it’s just coincidence that Medieval and early modern trade/finance networks depended heavily on groups that all shared the same religion. Religious Judaism, in particular, has some very heavy, costly signaling, from the inconvenient food laws to the easy to spot hats to the burden of running divorce law through both secular and religious authorities. One potential explanation for why people would go to so much bother is to signal their sincerity, piety, and thus trustworthiness to potential business partners who otherwise know little about them.

In times and places places where a much larger percent of the population shared the same religion, this kind of trust, aiding in cooperation with people outside of one’s family or local tribe, probably helped spawn the large, high-trust, organized societies those of us in the developed world enjoy today.

A big difference between conservative religions and progressive religions is the progressive ones tend to say, “Hey, what if God is okay with wireheading?”

The command against wireheading doesn’t always make sense on its surface. What is so bad about smoking pot, especially if I do so in the privacy of my own home? Yet the long-term effects of wireheading tend to be bad–very bad. God (or GNON) favors trust, humility, hard work, and putting your efforts into children, not wires.

Anthropology Friday: Appalachia pt 4/4

Welcome to the final installment of Our Southern Highlanders, by Horace Kephart, published in 1913. Today we will continue our discussion of the origins of the Appalachian people, then finish with a vision of change, “progress,” and change.


“And the southwestward movement, once started, never stopped. So there went on a gradual but sure progress of northern peoples across the Potomac, up the Shenandoah, across the Staunton, the Dan, the Yadkin, until the western piedmont and foot-hill region of Carolina was similarly settled, chiefly by Pennsylvanians.

“Among those who made the long trek from Pennsylvania southward in the eighteenth century, were Daniel Boone and the ancestors of David Crockett, Samuel Houston, John C. Calhoun, “Stonewall” Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln. Boone and the Lincolns, although English themselves, had been neighbors in Berks County, one of the most German parts of all eastern Pennsylvania.

“So the western piedmont and the mountains were settled neither by Cavaliers nor by poor whites, but by a radically distinct and even antagonistic people who are appropriately called the Roundheads of the South.”

EvX: According to Wikipedia:

Roundheads were supporters of the Parliament of England during the English Civil War. Also known as Parliamentarians, they fought against Charles I of England and his supporters, the Cavaliers or Royalists, who claimed rule by absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings.[1] The goal of the Roundhead party was to give the Parliament supreme control over executive administration.[2]

War of the Regulation (1765-1772):

“About this time there broke out in Carolina a struggle between the independent settlers of the piedmont and the rich trading and official class of the coast. The former rose in bodies under the name of Regulators and a battle followed in which they were defeated. To escape from the persecutions of the aristocracy, many of the Regulators and their friends crossed the Appalachian Mountains and built their cabins in the Watauga region. Here, in 1772, there was established by these “rebels” the first republic in America, based upon a written constitution “the first ever adopted by a community of American-born freemen.”

EvX: The Wikipedia article on the War of the Regulation. It appears to have been triggered by the newly-arrived colonial governor raising taxes in the middle of a drought in order to finance the building of his personal mansion.

Daniel Boone escorting settlers through the Cumberland Gap, George Bingham, 1852

Daniel Boone:

“Boone first visited Kentucky, on a hunting trip, in 1769. Six years later he began to colonize it, in flat defiance of the British government, and in the face of a menacing proclamation from the royal governor of North Carolina. On the Kentucky River, three days after the battle of Lexington, the flag of the new colony of Transylvania was run up on his fort at Boonesborough. It was not until the following August that these “rebels of Kentuck” heard of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and celebrated it with shrill warwhoops around a bonfire in the center of their stockade.

“Such was the stuff of which the Appalachian frontiersmen were made. They were the first Americans to cut loose entirely from the seaboard and fall back upon their own resources. They were the first to establish governments of their own, in defiance of king and aristocracy.

Appalachia in the Civil War:

“So the southern highlanders languished in isolation, sunk in a Rip Van Winkle sleep, until aroused by the thunder-crash of the Civil War. Let John Fox tell the extraordinary result of that awakening.—

“The American mountaineer was discovered, I say, at the beginning of the war, when the Confederate leaders were counting on the presumption that Mason and Dixon’s Line was the dividing line between the North and South, and formed, therefore, the plan of marching an army from Wheeling, in West Virginia, to some point on the Lakes, and thus dissevering the North at one blow.

“The plan seemed so feasible that it is said to have materially aided the sale of Confederate bonds in England. But when Captain Garnett, a West Point graduate, started to carry it out, he got no farther than Harper’s Ferry. When he struck the mountains, he struck enemies who shot at his men from ambush, cut down bridges before him, carried the news of his march to the Federals, and Garnett himself fell with a bullet from a mountaineer’s squirrel rifle at Harper’s Ferry.

“Then the South began to realize what a long, lean, powerful arm of the Union it was that the southern mountaineer stretched through its very vitals; for that arm helped hold Kentucky in the Union by giving preponderance to the Union sympathizers in the Blue-grass; it kept the east Tennesseans loyal to the man; it made West Virginia, as the phrase goes, ‘secede from secession’; it drew out a horde of one hundred thousand volunteers, when Lincoln called for troops, depleting Jackson County, Kentucky, for instance, of every male under sixty years of age and over fifteen; and it raised a hostile barrier between the armies of the coast and the armies of the Mississippi. The North has never realized, perhaps, what it owes for its victory to this non-slaveholding southern mountaineer.”

“… It may be added that no other part of our country suffered longer or more severely from the aftermath of war. Throughout that struggle the mountain region was a nest for bushwhackers and bandits that preyed upon the aged and defenseless who were left at home, and thus there was left an evil legacy of neighborhood wrongs and private grudges. Most of the mountain counties had incurred the bitter hostility of their own States by standing loyal to the Union. After Appomattox they were cast back into a worse isolation than they had ever known. Most unfortunately, too, the Federal Government, at this juncture, instead of interposing to restore law and order in the highlands, turned the loyalty of the mountaineers into outlawry, as in 1794, by imposing a prohibitive excise tax upon their chief merchantable commodity [moonshine].

“Left, then, to their own devices, unchecked by any stronger arm, inflamed by a multitude of personal wrongs, habituated to the shedding of human blood, contemptuous of State laws that did not reach them, enraged by Federal acts that impugned, as they thought, an inalienable right of man, it was inevitable that this fiery and vindictive race should fall speedily into warring among themselves. Old scores were now to be wiped out in a reign of terror. The open combat of bannered war was turned into the secret ferocity of family feuds.

“But the mountaineers of to-day are face to face with a mighty change. … Everywhere the highways of civilization are pushing into remote mountain fastnesses. Vast enterprises are being installed. The timber and the minerals are being garnered. The mighty waterpower that has been running to waste since these mountains rose from the primal sea is now about to be harnessed in the service of man. Along with this economic revolution will come, inevitably, good schools, newspapers, a finer and more liberal social life. The highlander, at last, is to be caught up in the current of human progress.”

EvX: How’s that going? Have things improved? The author himself seems skeptical:

“Here, then, is Appalachia: one of the great land-locked areas of the globe, more English in speech than Britain itself, more American by blood than any other part of America, encompassed by a high-tensioned civilization, yet less affected to-day by modern ideas, less cognizant of modern progress, than any other part of the English-speaking world.


“Commercialism has discovered the mountains at last, and no sentiment, however honest, however hallowed, can keep it out. The transformation is swift. Suddenly the mountaineer is awakened from his eighteenth-century bed by the blare of steam whistles and the boom of dynamite. He sees his forests leveled and whisked away; his rivers dammed by concrete walls and shot into turbines that outpower all the horses in Appalachia. He is dazed by electric lights, nonplussed by speaking wires, awed by vast transfers of property, incensed by rude demands. Aroused, now, and wide-eyed, he realizes with sinking heart that here is a sudden end of that Old Dispensation under which he and his ancestors were born, the beginning of a New Order that heeds him and his neighbors not a whit.

“All this insults his conservatism. The old way was the established order of the universe: to change it is fairly impious. What is the good of all this fuss and fury? That fifty-story building they tell about, in their big city—what is it but another Tower of Babel? And these silly, stuck-up strangers who brag and brag about “modern improvements”—what are they, under their fine manners and fine clothes? Hirelings all. Shrewdly he observes them in their relations to each other.—

“Each man is some man’s servant; every soul
Is by some other’s presence quite discrowned.”


“Proudly he contrasts his ragged self: he who never has acknowledged a superior, never has taken an order from living man, save as a patriot in time of war. And he turns upon his heel.

“Yet, before he can fairly credit it as a reality, the lands around his own home are bought up by corporations. All about him, slash, crash, go the devastating forces. His old neighbors vanish. New and unwelcome ones swarm in. He is crowded, but ignored. His hard-earned patrimony is robbed of all that made it precious: its home-like seclusion, independence, dignity. He sells out, and moves away to some uninvaded place where he “will not be bothered.”

““I don’t like these improvements,” said an old mountaineer to me. “Some calls them ‘progress,’ and says they put money to circulatin’. So they do; but who gits it?” …

“The curse of our invading civilization is that its vanguard is composed of men who care nothing for the welfare of the people they dispossess. …

“All who know the mountaineers intimately have observed that the sudden inroad of commercialism has a bad effect upon them. …”

“The great need of our mountaineers to-day is trained leaders of their own. The future of Appalachia lies mostly in the hands of those resolute native boys and girls who win the education fitting them for such leadership. Here is where the nation at large is summoned by a solemn duty. And it should act quickly, because commercialism exploits and debauches quickly. But the schools needed here are not ordinary graded schools. They should be vocational schools that will turn out good farmers, good mechanics, good housewives. Meantime let a model farm be established in every mountain county showing how to get the most out of mountain land. Such object lessons would speedily work an economic revolution. It is an economic problem, fundamentally, that the mountaineer has to face.”

EvX: This brings us to the end of Kephart’s work. Though at times it paints an unflattering picture, he was at heart entirely sympathetic to his mountain friends and subjects; like all who observe “primitive” peoples on the cusp of modernity, he saw both the opportunities for material improvement and the dangers of spiritual (and physical) degradation.

Previous posts on Appalachia: What Ails Appalachia?

Book Club: The Code Economy, Chs. 6-7: Learning Curves

Welcome back to EvX’s Book Club: The Code Economy, by Philip Auerswald. Today’s entry is going to be quick, because summer has started and I don’t have much time. Ch 6 is titled Information, and can perhaps be best summarized:

The challenge is to build a reliable economy with less reliable people. In this way, the economy is an information processing organism. …

When I assert that economics must properly be understood as a branch of information theory, I am reffing to the centrality of the communication problem that exists whenever one person attempts to share know-how with another. I am referring, in other words, to the centrality of code.

Auerswald goes on to sketch some relevant background on “code” as a branch of economics:

The economics taught in undergraduate courses is a great example of history being written by the victors. Because the methodologies of neoclassical economics experienced numerous triumphs in the middle of the twentieth century, the study of the distribution of resources within the economy–choice rather than code and, to a lesser extent, consumption rather than  production–came to be taught as the totality of economics. However, the reality is that choice and code have always coexisted, not only in the economy itself but in the history of economic thought.

And, an aside, but interesting:

Indeed, from 1807 to the time Jevons was born, the volume of shipping flowing through the port of Liverpool more than doubled.


And yet, while both the city’s population and worker’s wages increased steadily, a severe economic rift occurred that separated the haves from the have-nots. As wealthy Liverpudlians moved away from the docks to newly fashionable districts on the edges of the city, those left behind in the center of town faced miserable conditions.From 1830 through 1850, life expectancy actually decreased in Liverpool proper from an already miserable 32 years to a shocking 25 years.

(You should see what happened to life expectancies in Ireland around that time.)

A reliable economy built with less reliable people is one in which individuals have very little autonomy, because autonomy means unreliable people messing things up.

Thereafter, a series of economists, Herbert Simon foremost among them, put the challenges of gathering, sharing, and processing economically relevant information at the center of their work.

Taken together and combined with foundational insights from other fields–notably evolutionary biology and molecular biology–the contributions of these economists constitute a distinct domain of inquiry within economics. These contributions have focused on people as producers and on the algorithms that drive the development of the economy.

This domain of inquiry is Code Economics.

I am rather in love with taking the evolutionary model and applying it to other fields, like the spread of ideas (memes) or the growth of cities, companies, economies, or whole countries. That is kind of what we do, here at EvolutionistX.

Chapter 7 is titled Learning: The Dividend of Doing. It begins with an amusing tale about Julia Child, who did not even learn to cook until her mid to late thirties, and then became a rather famous chef/cookbook writer. (Cooking recipes are one of Auerswald’s favored examples of “code” in action.)

Next Auerswald discusses Francis Walker, first president of the American Economic Association. Walker disagreed with the “wage fund theory” and with Jevons’s simplifying assumption that firms can be modeled as simply hiring workers until it cannot make any more money by hiring more workers than by investing in more capital.

Jevons’s formulation pushes production algorithms–how businesses are actually being run–into the background and tradeoffs between labor and capital to the foreground. But as Walker notes:

“We have the phenomenon in every community and in every trade, in whatever state of the market,” Walker observes, “of some employers realizing no profits at all, while other are making fair profits; others, again, large profits; others, still, colossal profits. Side by side, in the same business, with equal command of capital, with equal opportunities, one man is gradually sinking a fortune, while another is doubling or trebling his accumulations.”

The relevant economic data, when it finally became available, confirmed Walker’s belief about the distribution of profits, yet the difference between the high-profit and low-profit firms does not appear to hinge primarily on the question of how much labor should be substituted for capital and vice versa.

Walker argued that more profitable entrepreneurs are that way because they are able to solve a difficult problem more effectively than other entrepreneurs. … three core mechanisms for the advance of code: learning, evolution, and the layering of complexity though the development of platforms.


…in the empirical economics of production, few discoveries have been more universal or significant than that of the firm-level learning curve. As economist James Bessen notes, “Developing the knowledge and skills needed to implement new technologies on a large scale is a difficult social problem that takes a long time to resolve… A new technology typically requires more than an invention in order to be designed, built, installed, operated, and maintained. Initially, much of this new technical knowledge develops slowly because it is learned through experience, not in the classroom.”

Those of you who are familiar with business economics probably find learning curves and firm growth curves boring and old-hat, but they’re new and quite fascinating to me. Auerswald has an interesting story about the development of airplanes and a challenge to develop cheaper, two-seat planes during the Depression–could a plane be built for under a $1,000? $700?

(Make sure to read the footnote on the speed of production of “Liberty Ships.”)

The rest of the chapter discusses the importance of proper firm management for maximizing efficiency and profits. Now, I have an instinctual aversion to managers, due to my perception that they tend to be parasitic on their workers or at least in competition with them for resources/effort, but I can admit that a well-run company is likely more profitable than a badly run one. Whether it is more pleasant for the workers is another matter, as the folks working in Amazon’s warehouses can tell you.

So why are some countries rich and others poor?

Whereas dominant variants of the neoclassical production model emphasize categories such as public knowledge and organization, which can be copied and implemented at zero cost, code economics suggests that such categories are unlikely to be significantly relevant in the practical work of creating the business entities that drive the progress of human society. This is because code at the level of a single company–what I term a “production algorithm”–includes firm-specific components. Producers far from dominant production clusters must learn to produce through a costly process of trial and error. Market-driven advances in production recipes, from which venture with proprietary value can be created, require a tenacious will to experiment, to learn, and to document carefully the results of that learning. Heterogeneity among managers… is thus central to understanding observed differences between regions and nations. …

Management and the development of technical standards combined to enable not just machines but organizations to be interoperable and collaborative. Companies thus could become far bigger and supply chains far more complex than every before.

As someone who actually likes shopping at Ikea, I guess I should thank a manager somewhere.

Auerswald points out that if communication of production algorithms and company methods were perfect and costless, then learning curves wouldn’t exist:

All of these examples underscore the following point, core to code economics: The imperfection of communication is not a theory. It is a ubiquitous and inescapable physical reality.

That’s all for now, but how are you enjoying the book? Do you have any thoughts on these chapters? I enjoyed them quite a bit–especially the part about Intel and the graphs of the distribution of management scores by country. What do you think of France and the UK’s rather lower “management” scores than the US and Germany?

Join us next week for Ch. 8: Evolution–should be exciting!

The Modular Mind

The other day I was walking through the garden when I looked down, saw one of these, leapt back, screamed loudly enough to notify the entire neighborhood:

(The one in my yard was insect free, however.)

After catching my breath, I wondered, “Is that a wasp nest or a beehive?” and crept back for a closer look. Wasp nest. I mentally paged through my knowledge of wasp nests: wasps abandon nests when they fall on the ground. This one was probably empty and safe to step past. I later tossed it onto the compost pile.

The interesting part of this incident wasn’t the nest, but my reaction. I jumped away from the thing before I had even consciously figured out what the nest was. Only once I was safe did I consciously think about the nest.

So I’ve been reading Gazzaniga’s Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain. (I’m thinking of making this a Book Club pick; debating between this and Kurzweil’s How to Create a Mind: The Secrets of Human thought Revealed, which I have not read, but comes recommended. Feel free to vote for one, the other, or both.)

Gazzaniga discusses a problem faced by brains trying to evolve to be bigger and smarter: how do you get more neurons working without taking up an absurd amount of space connecting each and every neuron to every other neuron?

Imagine a brain with 5 connected neurons: each neuron requires 4 connections to talk to every other neuron. A 5 neuron brain would thus need space for 10 total connections.

The addition of a 6th neuron would require 5 new connections; a 7th neuron requires 6 new connections, etc. A fully connected brain of 100 neurons would require 99 connections per neuron, for a total of 4,950 connections.

The human brain has about 86 billion neurons.

Connecting all of your neurons might work fine if if you’re a sea squirt, with only 230 or so neurons, but it is going to fail hard if you’re trying to hook up 86 billion. The space required to hook up all of these neurons would be massively larger than the space you can actually maintain by eating.

So how does an organism evolving to be smarter deal with the connectivity demands of increasing brain size?

Human social lives suggest an answer: Up on the human scale, one person can, Dunbar estimates, have functional social relationships with about 150 other people, including an understanding of those people’s relationships with each other. 150 people (the “Dunbar number”) is therefore the amount of people who can reliably cooperate or form groups without requiring any top-down organization.

So how do humans survive in groups of a thousand, a million, or a billion (eg, China)? How do we build large-scale infrastructure projects requiring the work of thousands of people and used by millions, like interstate highways? By organization–that is, specialization.

In a small tribe of 150 people, almost everyone in the tribe can do most of the jobs necessary for the tribe’s survival, within the obvious limits of biology. Men and women are both primarily occupied with collecting food. Both prepare clothing and shelter; both can cook. There is some specialization of labor–obviously men can carry heavier loads; women can nurse children–but most people are generally competent at most jobs.

In a modern industrial economy, most people are completely incompetent at most jobs. I have a nice garden, but I don’t even know how to turn on a tractor, much less how to care for a cow. The average person does not know how to knit or sew, much less build a house, wire up the electricity and lay the plumbing. We attend school from 5 to 18 or 22 or 30 and end up less competent at surviving in our own societies than a cave man with no school was in his, not because school is terrible but because modern industrial society requires so much specialized knowledge to keep everything running that no one person can truly master even a tenth of it.

Specialization, not just of people but of organizations and institutions, like hospitals devoted to treating the sick, Walmarts devoted to selling goods, and Microsoft devoted to writing and selling computer software and hardware, lets society function without requiring that everyone learn to be a doctor, merchant, and computer expert.


Similarly, brains expand their competence via specialization, not denser neural connections.

As UPI reports, Intelligence is correlated with fewer neural connections, not more, study finds:

The smartest people may boast more neurons than those of average intelligence, but their brains have fewer neural connections…

Neuroscientists in Germany recruited 259 participants, both men and women, to take IQ tests and have their brains imaged…

The research revealed a strong correlation between the number of dendrites in a person’s cerebral cortex and their intelligence. The smartest participants had fewer neural connections in their cerebral cortex.

Fewer neural connections overall allows different parts of the brain to specialize, increasing local competence.

All things are produced more plentifully and easily and of a better quality when one man does one thing that is natural to him and does it at the right time, and leaves other things. –Plato, The Republic

The brains of mice, as Gazzinga discusses, do not need to be highly specialized, because mice are not very smart and do not do many specialized activities. Human brains, by contrast, are highly specialized, as anyone who has ever had a stroke has discovered. (Henry Harpending of West Hunter, for example, once had a stroke while visiting Germany that knocked out the area of his brain responsible for reading, but since he couldn’t read German in the first place, he didn’t realize anything was wrong until several hours later.)

I read, about a decade ago, that male and female brains have different levels, and patterns, of internal connectivity. (Here and here are articles on the subject.) These differences in connectivity may allow men and women to excel at different skills, and since we humans are a social species that can communicate by talking, this allows us to take cognitive modality beyond the level of a single brain.

So modularity lets us learn (and do) more things, with the downside that sometimes knowledge is highly localized–that is, we have a lot of knowledge that we seem able to access only under specific circumstances, rather than use generally.

For example, I have long wondered at the phenomenon of people who can definitely do complicated math when asked to, but show no practical number sense in everyday life, like the folks from the Yale Philosophy department who are confused about why African Americans are under-represented in their major, even though Yale has an African American Studies department which attracts a disproportionate % of Yale’s African American students. The mathematical certainty that if any major in the whole school that attracts more African American students, then other majors will end up with fewer, has been lost on these otherwise bright minds.

Yalies are not the only folks who struggle to use the things they know. When asked to name a book–any book–ordinary people failed. Surely these people have heard of a book at some point in their lives–the Bible is pretty famous, as is Harry Potter. Even if you don’t like books, they were assigned in school, and your parents probably read The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham to you when you were a kid. It is not that they do not have the knowledge as they cannot access it.

Teachers complain all the time that students–even very good ones–can memorize all of the information they need for a test, regurgitate it all perfectly, and then turn around and show no practical understanding of the information at all.

Richard Feynman wrote eloquently of his time teaching future science teachers in Brazil:

In regard to education in Brazil, I had a very interesting experience. I was teaching a group of students who would ultimately become teachers, since at that time there were not many opportunities in Brazil for a highly trained person in science. These students had already had many courses, and this was to be their most advanced course in electricity and magnetism – Maxwell’s equations, and so on. …

I discovered a very strange phenomenon: I could ask a question, which the students would answer immediately. But the next time I would ask the question – the same subject, and the same question, as far as I could tell – they couldn’t answer it at all! For instance, one time I was talking about polarized light, and I gave them all some strips of polaroid.

Polaroid passes only light whose electric vector is in a certain direction, so I explained how you could tell which way the light is polarized from whether the polaroid is dark or light.

We first took two strips of polaroid and rotated them until they let the most light through. From doing that we could tell that the two strips were now admitting light polarized in the same direction – what passed through one piece of polaroid could also pass through the other. But then I asked them how one could tell the absolute direction of polarization, for a single piece of polaroid.

They hadn’t any idea.

I knew this took a certain amount of ingenuity, so I gave them a hint: “Look at the light reflected from the bay outside.”

Nobody said anything.

Then I said, “Have you ever heard of Brewster’s Angle?”

“Yes, sir! Brewster’s Angle is the angle at which light reflected from a medium with an index of refraction is completely polarized.”

“And which way is the light polarized when it’s reflected?”

“The light is polarized perpendicular to the plane of reflection, sir.” Even now, I have to think about it; they knew it cold! They even knew the tangent of the angle equals the index!

I said, “Well?”

Still nothing. They had just told me that light reflected from a medium with an index, such as the bay outside, was polarized; they had even told me which way it was polarized.

I said, “Look at the bay outside, through the polaroid. Now turn the polaroid.”

“Ooh, it’s polarized!” they said.

After a lot of investigation, I finally figured out that the students had memorized everything, but they didn’t know what anything meant. When they heard “light that is reflected from a medium with an index,” they didn’t know that it meant a material such as water. They didn’t know that the “direction of the light” is the direction in which you see something when you’re looking at it, and so on. Everything was entirely memorized, yet nothing had been translated into meaningful words. So if I asked, “What is Brewster’s Angle?” I’m going into the computer with the right keywords. But if I say, “Look at the water,” nothing happens – they don’t have anything under “Look at the water”!

The students here are not dumb, and memorizing things is not bad–memorizing your times tables is very useful–but they have everything lodged in their “memorization module” and nothing in their “practical experience module.” (Note: I am not necessarily suggesting that thee exists a literal, physical spot in the brain where memorized and experienced knowledge reside, but that certain brain structures and networks lodge information in ways that make it easier or harder to access.)

People frequently make arguments that don’t make logical sense when you think them all the way through from start to finish, but do make sense if we assume that people are using specific brain modules for quick reasoning and don’t necessarily cross-check their results with each other. For example, when we are angry because someone has done something bad to us, we tend to snap at people who had nothing to do with it. Our brains are in “fight and punish mode” and latch on to the nearest person as the person who most likely committed the offense, even if we consciously know they weren’t involved.

Political discussions are often marred by folks running what ought to be logical arguments through status signaling, emotional, or tribal modules. The desire to see Bad People punished (a reasonable desire if we all lived in the same physical community with each other) interferes with a discussion of whether said punishment is actually useful, effective, or just. For example, a man who has been incorrectly convicted of the rape of a child will have a difficult time getting anyone to listen sympathetically to his case.

In the case of white South African victims of racially-motivated murder, the notion that their ancestors did wrong and therefore they deserve to be punished often overrides sympathy. As BBC notes, these killings tend to be particularly brutal (they often involve torture) and targeted, but the South African government doesn’t care:

According to one leading political activist, Mandla Nyaqela, this is the after-effect of the huge degree of selfishness and brutality which was shown towards the black population under apartheid. …

Virtually every week the press here report the murders of white farmers, though you will not hear much about it in the media outside South Africa.In South Africa you are twice as likely to be murdered if you are a white farmer than if you are a police officer – and the police here have a particularly dangerous life. The killings of farmers are often particularly brutal. …

Ernst Roets’s organisation has published the names of more than 2,000 people who have died over the last two decades. The government has so far been unwilling to make solving and preventing these murders a priority. …

There used to be 60,000 white farmers in South Africa. In 20 years that number has halved.

The Christian Science Monitor reports on the measures ordinary South Africans have to take in what was once a safe country to not become human shishkabobs, which you should pause and read, but is a bit of a tangent from our present discussion. The article ends with a mind-bending statement about a borrowed dog (dogs are also important for security):

My friends tell me the dog is fine around children, but is skittish around men, especially black men. The people at the dog pound told them it had probably been abused. As we walk past house after house, with barking dog after barking dog, I notice Lampo pays no attention. Instead, he’s watching the stream of housekeepers and gardeners heading home from work. They eye the dog nervously back.

Great, I think, I’m walking a racist dog.

Module one: Boy South Africa has a lot of crime. Better get a dog, cover my house with steel bars, and an extensive security system.

Module two: Associating black people with crime is racist, therefore my dog is racist for being wary of people who look like the person who abused it.

And while some people are obviously sympathetic to the plight of murdered people, “Cry me a river White South African Colonizers” is a very common reaction. (Never mind that the people committing crimes in South Africa today never lived under apartheid; they’ve lived in a black-run country for their entire lives.) Logically, white South Africans did not do anything to deserve being killed, and like the golden goose, killing the people who produce food will just trigger a repeat of Zimbabwe, but the modes of tribalism–“I do not care about these people because they are not mine and I want their stuff”–and punishment–“I read about a horrible thing someone did, so I want to punish everyone who looks like them”–trump logic.

Who dies–and how they die–significantly shapes our engagement with the news. Gun deaths via mass shootings get much more coverage and worry than ordinary homicides, even though ordinary homicides are far more common. homicides get more coverage and worry than suicides, even though suicides are far more common. The majority of gun deaths are actually suicides, but you’d never know that from listening to our national conversation about guns, simply because we are biased to worry far more about other people killng us than about ourselves.

Similarly, the death of one person via volcano receives about the same news coverage as 650 in a flood, 2,000 in a drought, or 40,000 in a famine. As the article notes:

Instead of considering the objective damage caused by natural disasters, networks tend to look for disasters that are “rife with drama”, as one New York Times article put it4—hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires, earthquakes all make for splashy headlines and captivating visuals. Thanks to this selectivity, less “spectacular” but often times more deadly natural disasters tend to get passed over. Food shortages, for example, result in the most casualties and affect the most people per incident5 but their onset is more gradual than that of a volcanic explosion or sudden earthquake. … This bias for the spectacular is not only unfair and misleading, but also has the potential to misallocate attention and aid.

There are similar biases by continent, with disasters in Africa receiving less attention than disasters in Europe (this correlates with African disasters being more likely to be the slow-motion famines, epidemics and droughts that kill lots of people, and European disasters being splashier, though perhaps we’d consider famines “splashier” if they happened in Paris instead of Ethiopia.)

From Personality and Political Attitudes: “Conservatives are hard-working, organized, closed-minded, and emotionally stable. Liberals are lazy, disorganized, open-minded, and neurotic. Let’s see how the punditocracy spins that one.”

From a neuropolitical perspective, I suspect that patterns such as the Big Five personality traits correlating with particular political positions (“openness” with “liberalism,” for example, or “conscientiousness” with “conservativeness,”) is caused by patterns of brain activity that cause some people to depend more or less on particular brain modules for processing.

For example, conservatives process more of the world through the areas of their brain that are also used for processing disgust, (not one of “the five” but still an important psychological trait) which increases their fear of pathogens, disease vectors, and generally anything new or from the outside. Disgust can go so far as to process other people’s faces or body language as “disgusting” (eg, trans people) even when there is objectively nothing that presents an actual contamination or pathogenic risk involved.

Similarly, people who feel more guilt in one area of their life often feel guilt in others–eg, “White guilt was significantly associated with bulimia nervosa symptomatology.” The arrow of causation is unclear–guilt about eating might spill over into guilt about existing, or guilt about existing might cause guilt about eating, or people who generally feel guilty about everything could have both. Either way, these people are generally not logically reasoning, “Whites have done bad things, therefore I should starve myself.” (Should veganism be classified as a politically motivated eating disorder?)

I could continue forever–

Restrictions on medical research are biased toward preventing mentally salient incidents like thalidomide babies, but against the invisible cost of children who die from diseases that could have been cured had research not been prevented by regulations.

America has a large Somali community but not Congolese, (85,000 Somalis vs. 13,000 Congolese, of whom 10,000 hail from the DRC. Somalia has about 14 million people, the DRC has about 78.7 million people, so it’s not due to there being more Somalis in the world,) for no particular reason I’ve been able to discover, other than President Clinton once disastrously sent a few helicopters to intervene in the eternal Somali civil war and so the government decided that we now have a special obligation to take in Somalis.

–but that’s probably enough.

I have tried here to present a balanced account of different political biases, but I would like to end by noting that modular thinking, while it can lead to stupid decisions, exists for good reasons. If purely logical thinking were superior to modular, we’d probably be better at it. Still, cognitive biases exist and lead to a lot of stupid or sub-optimal results.