Further thoughts on spiteful mutants

I’ve had two requests recently, one for opinions about the spiteful mutant hypothesis, the other about Kaczynski’s work. These are related concepts, of course, in that they both deal with the structure of society.

It took me a little while to realize that the “spiteful mutant” hypothesis has to do with bioleninism, not just studies about mice (clearly I haven’t been reading the right things). Bioleninism is the idea that elites may prefer to hire/promote unqualified people because these people will then be more loyal to the regime because they know they couldn’t get as good a job elsewhere.

The problem with this theory is that the “unqualified” people being hired by the elites are not grateful or loyal at all. If anything, they are resentful, malicious, petty, and greedy, ready to tear down everyone who “gave them a chance,” especially if they think they can promote themselves at the same time.

The difficulty with the mouse models is that they deal with autistic-model mice and their effects on the social structure of a normal mouse colony, but in real life, the people throwing wrenches into society are not autistic–if anything, they are hyper-social. (Or as Ted would say, they are oversocialized.)

Humans, obviously, are not mice. Humans build things. (Mice build things, too, but much less than humans.) We build lots of things, especially those of us in the modern, industrialized world.

I’m sure I’ve harped this over and over, but I still find the modern, industrial world amazing (and slightly disconcerting). I am amazed that our homeless are fat, that ordinary people have toilets, that infant mortality is below 1%. On the scale of human history, we as a species have changed almost everything about our lives in the blink of an eye, and we have yet to see how all of this works out for us. Certainly we are not adapted to it, but that doesn’t necessarily make it bad.

Building our modern world has required the development of new mental skills that our ancestors didn’t possess, like reading, writing, and arithmetic. 10,000 years ago, before the invention of the alphabet, these skills didn’t exist; today almost everyone has mastered them.

Language, both oral and written, requires the ability to generalize. Take something as simple as the letter “A”. It comes in three standard forms, A, a, and the little a used in handwriting. It also comes in many different fonts, in sloppy and neat handwriting, in cursive and smudged ink. You can read the letter “a” even when part of the letter is missing.

Even worse than the variability in the mere shape of the letter, “A” does not consistently refer to a particular sound. It sounds like it is supposed to in “apple,” but sounds like a U in “was.”

Now multiply by the whole alphabet and all of the different voices and accents, noisy rooms and distorted audio, and it’s a wonder that we can understand each other at all, much less read sentences like, “Rpie rsapebrreis are delciiuous in the smmuertmie,” and “Gosts luv cookies b_t candy iz b_ttr.”

Our understanding of language relies on a lot of processing to fill in the gaps between what we hear/see and what was meant. A similar effect is at play with optical illusions.

Both of these faces, for example, are red. Your brain takes the raw data from your eyes, does some processing and color-correction to account for the other colors in the image, and ends up concluding that one screamer is actually orange.

Our brains do this because real life has shifting patterns of color and shade, and our brains are trying to figure out the “real” color if you remove those effects.

One of the interesting things about autistic people is that they are less likely to “see” optical illusions. This might turn out to be one of those amusing psychological findings that doesn’t replicate, but assuming it’s sound, it seems to be because their brains do less processing of the raw data the receive. This means they see the world more as it actually is and less as they think it should be.

The advantage to seeing the world as it actually is and not as you want it to be obviously lies in professions that autists or semi-aspie people excel in, like math and engineering. Unlike reading, you can’t just go filling in missing data in mathematical equations. Lewis Carol could write poems by stringing together things that sound like words, but you can’t build a circuit by wiring together a bunch of capacitors into something that looks generally like the idea of a circuit. An equation that is missing a digit isn’t solvable, a measurement with a misplaced decimal is useless (and potentially deadly), and a misplaced image tag in a post’s code once completely messed up my blog’s layout.

If reading and talking require being good at adding information until you get the general gist of what is meant, math and engineering require carefully not adding information. Humans aren’t very good at this, because it’s a very new skill.

Modern industrial civilization is only possible because of precision engineering. You cannot fit a billion transistors on a microchip without precision. You cannot send communication and navigation satellites into space without building complicated rockets that have to not explode on the launchpad (a surprisingly difficult task) and then precisely calculating their trajectories (otherwise they will veer off disastrously. These computations are complex enough that they tax the limits of human abilities–as Drozdov et al wrote in Fundamentals of Computer Technology in 1964:

Assume that we are to determine the trajectory of a guided space rocket. For this purpose we must calculate the points of the trajectory lying far ahead in the direction of motion of the rocket; only in that case can we estimate the deviation of the rocket from the prescribed direction and apply the necessary midcourse corrections. Such a calculation can be made only by an electronic computer, since workers would require tens of days or several months to calculate a single trajectory, while a rocket takes only three days to reach the moon. The computer will calculate the trajectory in minutes or tens of minutes.

Computers allow us to be more precise, much faster.)

Back in the 1700s, sailors faced a daunting problem: they had no reliable way to measure longitude while at sea. In 1707, inability to determine their position led to four British warships crashing and sinking, causing the deaths of over a thousand sailors. The British Parliament subsequently offered a reward of 20,000 pounds (that would be about 3 million pounds today,) to anyone who could solve the problem.

Early attempts focused on old fashioned methods of finding one’s way and telling time: the heavens. The board awarded 3,000 pounds, for example, to the widow of Tobias Mayer for his lunar tables. Just as the shadows cast by the sun or the height of the north star could be used to determine one’s latitude, so, they hoped, could the moon assist with longitude. Unfortuantely, this method is clunky, difficult, and relies too much on being able to see the moon.

The clockwork in Harrison’s H4 watch

John Harrison came up with a radically new solution: a watch. So long as your watch shows Greenwich time, you can compare it to the local time (observable via the sun or stars,) and the difference shows your longitude. Unfortunately, clocks that kept time precisely enough to accurately determine one’s latitude far from land didn’t exist in Harrison’s day: he had to build them himself. The resulting clocks are masterpieces, incredibly accurate for their day:

Harrison began working on his second ‘sea watch’ (H5) while testing was conducted on the first, which Harrison felt was being held hostage by the Board. After three years he had had enough; Harrison felt “extremely ill used by the gentlemen who I might have expected better treatment from” and decided to enlist the aid of King George III. He obtained an audience with the King, who was extremely annoyed with the Board. King George tested the watch No.2 (H5) himself at the palace and after ten weeks of daily observations between May and July in 1772, found it to be accurate to within one third of one second per day. King George then advised Harrison to petition Parliament for the full prize after threatening to appear in person to dress them down. Finally in 1773, when he was 80 years old, Harrison received a monetary award in the amount of £8,750 from Parliament for his achievements, but he never received the official award (which was never awarded to anyone). He was to survive for just three more years. …

Captain James Cook used K1, a copy of H4, on his second and third voyages, having used the lunar distance method on his first voyage.[22] K1 was made by Larcum Kendall, who had been apprenticed to John Jefferys. Cook’s log is full of praise for the watch and the charts of the southern Pacific Ocean he made with its use were remarkably accurate.

Okay, so that was a bit of an aside, but it’s a great story.

Societies with primitive technology have much less need for precision. It is difficult to imagine what a John Harrison would have dedicated his life to in a tribe of nomadic goat herders: they would have no need for second-level time-keeping precision. Primitive people didn’t even need fancy numbers like “12;” our lovely base-10 number system is a recent invention. Primitive people generally got by with tally marks; many had number systems that essentially stopped at 3: 1, 2, 3, lots.

We discussed this back in my review of Numbers and the Making of Us; the author spent much of his childhood among the Piraha of the Amazon, who have almost no words for numbers and no sense of number bigger than three (the first three are instinctual; many animals can count to three).

The author’s parents (missionaries) have actually tried to teach the Piraha to count, but after many years of training they still struggled to grasp concepts like “7” and 1-to-1 correspondence (that is, if I set up a line of 7 cans, can you set up a matching line that also contains 7 cans?)

In short, the advance of technology over the past 200 years has required the development of much higher levels of mental precision than our ancestors used.

Most people, of course, want to be precise sometimes and generalize at other times, and our brains naturally switch between the two modes depending on what we’re doing, but there is obviously a trade-off between being exceptionally good at either variety. (Smart people may have enough brains to do both well, but the rest of us have to pick one side or the other.)

In the “spiteful mutants” experiment, mouse society is inherently social, and the mutants who disrupt it are “autistic” (or what passes for autism in mice). In real life, much of our modern world was built by thing-obsessed people like John Harrison or Bill Gates. Our society isn’t “autistic” by any means, but there is a place for them that wouldn’t exist in other societies. By contrast, the “spiteful mutants” in our society are oversocialized folks like this guy:

No one who was busy trying to get the tolerances on their widget-producing machines down to less than a tenth of a millimetre ever had time to worry about the “liminal space” in which anyone’s identity is made.

In short, these people are trying to make us more social, more hierarchical, more like the original mouse community with all of the mice focused on reading social cues from each other and less like the “mutant” community with its focus on social cues and things.

As for where Ted fits into all of this, well, I suppose blowing people up is pretty spiteful, but he might not have in the first place if people had just left his woods alone.

Industrial Society Now

1. The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.

They have greatly increased the life-expectancy of those of us who live in “advanced” countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world.

Every day, people in Western countries in Australia, Europe and North America diligently separate their household plastic waste to be collected and sent for recycling. But much of it isn’t recycled. Instead it is exported – sometimes illegally – to Indonesia and neighbouring countries, polluting the air and affecting the health of local people. …
Plastic is burned on a large scale to ease Indonesia’s overflowing rubbish dumps…”

The continued development of technology will worsen the situation. It will certainly subject human beings to greater indignities and inflict greater damage on the natural world, it will probably lead to greater social disruption and psychological suffering, and it may lead to increased physical suffering even in “advanced” countries.

Newark, Ohio, September 6th, 2018: Flashing lights from emergency vehicles light up a residence on Elmwood Avenue in downtown Newark. Emergency responders administered naloxone to a 62-year-old man and hooked him up to an automated CPR machine before loading him into the ambulance and rushing to the emergency room.
(Photo: Will Widmer) From A Year in the Heart of the Addiction Crisis in Rust Belt America

2. The industrial-technological system may survive or it may break down. If it survives, it MAY eventually achieve a low level of physical and psychological suffering, but only after passing through a long and very painful period of adjustment and only at the cost of permanently reducing human beings and many other living organisms to engineered products and mere cogs in the social machine.

I don’t have any pithy videos/pictures for this one, but it’s a critique at least as old as Marx; Charlie Chaplin encapsulated the idea of man as nothing more than a cog in the industrial machine back in 1936.

That humans must be physical cogs in an industrial system is obvious enough–an assembly line moves forward at a certain rate and the humans working on it must match the rhythm of their movements to the line’s. Technically they can perform their individual, repetitive tasks faster than the line and then wait a few seconds until the next unit arrives, (if they are physically capable,) but they can go no slower. They certainly cannot work at a varied pace, sometimes faster and sometimes slower, even if their average speed is plenty fast: coordinating hundreds (or thousands) of people onto an assembly line requires that everyone works at the same pace.

The social implications are less obvious. Ted’s critique here is not that the industrial system reduces humans to cogs in the industrial machine, but that it reduces people to cogs in the social machine. Ted, after all, was not a manual laborer but a a university academic, a mathematician. He is, you might say, a spiteful mutant who does not want to play the social game, certainly not at Harvard, Michigan, or Berkeley.

What does it mean to be a social cog? A social cog has to “fit” with others; it has to play its social role (and no more).

Bees come in both social and antisocial varieties. The social varieties, like honeybees, build hives, have an elaborate genetic caste system, and sting (sacrificing themselves to defend the collective). The antisocial bees, like mason bees, live alone, do not build hives, can all reproduce, and do not sting (they have no hive to protect). You can speak of mason bees as individuals, but not honeybees. Honeybees, like the cells in your body, have no individual existence (well, unless you develop cancer. Then your cells can become immortal–but this has the nasty side effect of potentially killing you).

For all our talk of “individualism,” members of a modern society are no more “individuals” than members of a beehive; we do not really mean that they are “individuals” so much as that they are “interchangeable” and that their debts are owed to large corporations owned by strangers rather than family members.

On the other hand, I doubt Ted would have felt any happier in a small, tribal society; if anything, he would have had more people in his business trying to make him socialize in a particular way (theirs). Small tribal societies are not exactly well known for tolerating atheists and other dissidents, after all.

Certainly people who work industrial jobs (what few of them remain in the US) do not seem to be under the most pressure to conform mentally to the opinions of their class (or the ruling class). There does seem to be a conformist social pressure among the white-collar classes: perhaps it is as simple as people who work with ideas caring more about ideas, but there seems to be something deeper in the way certain people relate to each other and try to enforce their way of interacting on others.

U of Maryland

To quote the University of Maryland’s policy on “Binary Assumptive Language”:

These are examples of expressions that assume there are only two genders (a binary system of gender), expressions we recommend to avoid as a universal to refer to people generally — but they might be appropriate if referring to a specific person and you know how that person wants to be referred to.

. Ladies and gentlemen
. Boys and girls
. Men and women of the faculty
. Brothers and sisters
. He or she
. S/he
. Sir/madam

Say what you will about rural, tribal people: at least they won’t get you fired for beginning your speech with “Ladies and gentlemen.”

Ted concludes his second paragraph pessimistically:

Furthermore, if the system survives, the consequences will be inevitable: There is no way of reforming or modifying the system so as to prevent it from depriving people of dignity and autonomy.

I actually do think there is hope of learning to live in peace and harmony with the robots, but I doubt we’ll be doing so here in America. My full thoughts on this were explored back in my review of Auerswald’s The Code Economy, but the short version is that the internet has the potential to allow people to connect directly with consumers, so you are less dependent on a boss or a big corporation for employment and closer to self-employed.

One interesting example of the internet’s potential lies in Ted’s manifesto itself, Industrial Society and its Future. Today, anyone can go to a public library and use their computers to make a blog and post (almost) whatever they want on it. In 1995, getting a message in front of a large audience required convincing some publisher to print and distribute your work. Since Ted’s work was considered the rantings of a crazy terrorist, not many publishers were interested in it.

(I still think he would have been better off if he’d just gone to Kinkos, made 500 copies of the manifesto, and distributed them around local and university libraries, but we can’t escape the possibility that Ted sent a bunch of bombs to people and killed them because he wanted to, not because it was an efficient way to promote his writing.)

Nevertheless, it is certainly possible that had Ted been writing in 2005, he would have been content to express himself via a cranky blog rather than bombs. This would have required a certain ironic concession to the industrial system–no more ironic, though, than using someone else’s industrial printing press to distribute the manifesto. Want to spread your ideas to non-relatives? Welcome to the modern communication system: make your peace with that or don’t talk.

3. If the system breaks down the consequences will still be very painful. But the bigger the system grows the more disastrous the results of its breakdown will be, so if it is to break down it had best break down sooner rather than later.

Ted was an accelerationist. According to Wikipedia:

“In that 1999 interview, he described his loss of faith in the potential for reform. He decided that the “human tendency … to take the path of least resistance” meant that violent collapse was the only way to bring down the industrial-technological system:[46]

They’ll take the easy way out, and giving up your car, your television set, your electricity, is not the path of least resistance for most people. As I see it, I don’t think there is any controlled or planned way in which we can dismantle the industrial system. I think that the only way we will get rid of it is if it breaks down and collapses … The big problem is that people don’t believe a revolution is possible, and it is not possible precisely because they do not believe it is possible. To a large extent I think the eco-anarchist movement is accomplishing a great deal, but I think they could do it better … The real revolutionaries should separate themselves from the reformers … And I think that it would be good if a conscious effort was being made to get as many people as possible introduced to the wilderness. In a general way, I think what has to be done is not to try and convince or persuade the majority of people that we are right, as much as try to increase tensions in society to the point where things start to break down. To create a situation where people get uncomfortable enough that they’re going to rebel. So the question is how do you increase those tensions?

Ted’s primary motivation in beginning his terrorist campaign was the encroachment of modern society (roads, cars, parking lots, etc) onto his favorite hiking spots. If you live near a city, this is probably inevitable: cities have expanded tremendously over the past hundred years because the jobs are in the cities; economic production is now dependent on human proximity. (This is why the Land Value Tax is good: it prevents people from accumulating outsized wealth simply because they own land proximate to city centers.) As central hub cities have expanded, though, many small towns and communities have collapsed. So whether the local countryside is growing or shrinking probably has a lot to do with where you live (but if you live there, the local countryside is probably shrinking).

As for the broader ecological problems like global warming, clearly there really is nothing individuals can do about it. Perhaps the mass global quarantine due to Covid-19 caused a dent in emissions, eg:

Global Emissions Have dropped 17% During Coronavirus Pandemic:

With strict stay-at-home orders in place over the last couple months … there has been a momentous decline in global greenhouse gas emissions scientists reported on Tuesday amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The lack of human activity resulted in a decline of more than one billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions. According to the study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, peak drop in emissions happen in early April, reaching 17 percent.

The study projects that total emissions for 2020 will likely fall four to seven percent compared to last year, an unprecedented drop. Last fall, a United Nations report estimated that global greenhouse gas emissions would need to fall 7.6 percent each year beginning in 2020 to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

So, uh, if we have a global pandemic every year, we can just barely meet our climate goals, (assuming developing countries like India and Nigeria decide that their poor don’t need to ever aspire to middle-class luxuries like electricity).

I have been informed that the solution is nuclear power, but that does not seem to be on the table in most countries.

To be continued…

Gimme that new-time religion

I was recently discussing religion with a friend whose basic position is that religion is predatory and harmful. This is about the same position I took back in college: religions say a lot of untrue things and take people’s money in return.

But if religion is basically harmful, then its nigh-global occurrence (it is as culturally ubiquitous as cuisine) is difficult to explain: atheists ought to have done better economically, raised more children, and replaced theists ages ago. In the stone age. Furthermore, most people who go to church do so voluntarily, in their cars, at a time when they could be sleeping, and seem quite happy happy about it.

One of the early principles developed in the study of biology and human anatomy is that if a feature exists, it is there because it serves (or served) a purpose. Egyptian mummy-makers discarded the brain because they did not think it served a purpose, a move we now see as silly. Even if you haven’t figured out yet what that squishy blob does, clearly nature wouldn’t put so much effort into building it if it weren’t important. Even vestigial parts that no longer do anything offer us a window into the past because they used to be important.

Religion helps organize the rhythms and flows of human lives: it often defines people’s group identities, (“We in our tribe worship Athena. They in their tribe worship Apollo.”) it prescribes moral behavior, (“Thou shall not kill”) and it helps assuage existential angst, especially related to death.

Christianity in particular is set up to facilitate the cycle of sin, guilt, and forgiveness, with the promise of an afterlife in Heaven if you undergo the ritual and try to sin less and the threat of Hell if you do not. (I don’t know other religions as well as Christianity because I wasn’t raised in them, so my focus is Christianity.)

In obviously predatory religious groups (aka cults), leaders actively convince people that they are sinners in order to make them feel bad and coerce them into giving more time/money/sex to the cult. People who are already prone to feeling guilty about themselves are thus probably good marks for a cult; likewise, if you want people to consistently feel like they are sinners, it is probably best to target some instinct (like sexual attraction) that they don’t actually have much control over.

Convincing people that they are bad people who deserve punishment and that you are their only source of salvation is quite effective, at least for some people.

But people commit sins and feel remorseful even in the absence of cults. Non-predatory religions help people work through their guilt and absolve them of their sins, which is especially useful if you’re naturally neurotic and you can no longer find the person you sinned against in order to apologize properly. (Dear 12 grade teacher: I am sorry I cut class. I still feel very bad about it.)

One of the mysteries of the past few decades is why churches–especially Mainline Protestant denominations–have hemorrhaged members so badly. There are a few obvious reasons: technology has increased the visibility of atheists, making the potentially agnostic feel less alone in their lack of conviction; technology has made Bible-contradicting information more widely available; and of course Mainline Protestants don’t have enough babies to fill the pews.

But these trends alone seem insufficient to explain the speed of Mainline collapse. I suggest, therefore, that our idea of sin has changed.

Sexual sin was a very effective thing for people to feel bad about before the invention of birth control/condoms/antibiotics/etc., because people naturally desired a lot of sex that had very bad potential side effects, like disease or children they couldn’t afford to feed. With the advent of these technologies, most of the bad effects of sexual sin could be prevented or avoided, and so sexual sin became much less concerning.

Sexual sin is still a concern for Evangelicals and other low-class denominations, but the higher classes have abandoned this view. There are sensible reasons for this split, but they’re really background to our current moment, so we’ll explore them later. Our focus right now is on the new sin:

Neither slavery nor racism are particularly Biblical sins (slavery was legal in Biblical times and the word “racism” didn’t exist), but nobody really cares: they’re sins now.

When I say that the left is operating like a religion (or a cult), I am not using this metaphorically, nor to shut down conversation. I mean it literally: the modern left operates just like a religion, albeit a polytheistic one with many saints/demigods.

Mainline Protestant churches have been hemorrhaging, I suspect, because their followers have mass-converted to the Modern Religion.

The Modern Religion serves two purposes: it absolves its followers of the guilt of their sin and defines them against their out-group: the evil people who are still guilty of sin, aka conservatives. Since religion and group membership are roughly co-terminous, this defines conservatives who are still concerned with sexual sin as basically pagans and conservatives who object to the notion of racial sin as apostates. Apostates, of course, are worse than mere pagans.

Original Sin in this framework was not committed by Adam and Even in the mythical Garden of Eden, but in 1619 by the Founders of America. Perhaps anti-racism did not have to turn into a distinctly anti-American creed, but it is now:

Reminder that the police kill about as many unarmed black men each year as lightning kills whites.

Spiteful Mutants?

I recently received an inquiry as to my opinion about the “spiteful mutant hypothesis.” After a bit of reading about genetic deletions in rat colonies I realized that the question was probably referring to bioleninism rather than rodents (though both are valid).

Of Mice and Men: Empirical Support for the Population-Based Social Epistasis Amplification Model, by Serraf and Woodley of Menie, is an interesting article. The authors look at a study by  Kalbassi et al., 2017 about social structures in mouse populations. Experimenters raised two groups of mice. One group had mice with normal mouse genes; mice in this group were sensitive to mouse social-cues and formed normal mouse social hierarchies. The other group had mostly normal mice, but also some mice with genetic mutations that made them less sensitive to social cues. In the second group, the mutant mice were not simply excluded while the rest of the mice went on their merry way, but the entire structure of the group changed:

Among the more striking findings are that the genotypically mixed … litters lacked “a structured social hierarchy” (p. 9) and had lower levels of testosterone (in both Nlgn3y/- and Nlgn3y/+mice); additionally, Nlgn3y/+mice from genotypically homogeneous litters showed more interest in “social” as opposed to “non-social cues” (p. 9) than Nlgn3y/+mice from genotypically mixed litters [the latter did not show a preference for one type of cue over the other, “showing an absence of interest for social cues” (p. 9)].

In other words, in litters where all of the mice are social, they can depend on each other to send and receive social cues, so they do, so they form social hierarchies. Somehow,t his makes the (male) mice have a lot of testosterone. In litters where the mice cannot depend on their companions to consistently send and receive social cues, even the genetically normal mice don’t bother as much, social hierarchies fail to form, and the mice have less testosterone.

A “spiteful mutation” in this context is one that imposes costs not only on the carrier, but on those around them. In this case, by changing the social structure and decreasing the testosterone of the other mice.

It’s a good article (and not long); you should read it before going on.

So what is bioleninism? I’ve seen the term kicked around enough to have a vague sense of it, but let’s be a bit more formal–with thanks to Samir Pandilwar for succinctness:

Developed by Spandrell (alias, Bloody Shovel) it takes the basic Leninist model of building a Party to rule the state out of the dregs of society, and shifts this to the realm of biology, wrong-think biology in particular, building the party out of people who are permanent losers within the social order.

I think the term gets used more generally when people notice that people in positions of power (or striving to make themselves more powerful via leftist politics) are particularly unattractive. In this context, these people are the “spiteful mutants” trying to change the social structure to benefit themselves.

We humans, at least in the west, like to think of ourselves as “individuals” but we aren’t really, not completely. As Aristotle wrote, “Man is a political animal;” we are a social species and most of us can’t survive without society at large–perhaps none of us. Virtually all humans live in a tribe or community of some sort, or in the most isolated cases, have at least occasional trade with others for things they cannot produce themselves.

Our species has been social for its entire existence–even our nearest relatives, the other chimps and gorillas, are social animals, living in troops or families.

We talk a lot about “increasing atomization and individualism” in populations that have transitioned from traditional agricultural (or other lifestyles) to the urban, industrial/post-industrial life of the cities, and this is certainly true in a legal sense, but in a practical sense we are becoming less individual.

A man who lives alone in the mountains must do and provide most things for himself; he produces his own food, is warmed by the efforts of his own ax, and drinks water from his own well. Even his trash is his own responsibility. Meanwhile, people in the city depend on others for so many aspects of their lives: their food is shipped in, their hair is cut by strangers, their houses are cleaned by maids, their water comes from a tap, and even their children may be raised by strangers (often by necessity rather than choice). The man in the mountains is more properly an individual, while the man in the city is inextricably bound together with his fellows.

There isn’t anything objectively wrong with any particular piece of this (fine dining is delicious and hauling water is overrated), but I find the collective effect on people who have come to expect to live this way vaguely unnerving. It’s as though they have shed pieces of themselves and outsourced them to others.

Or as Kaczynski put it:

The industrial-technological system may survive or it may break down. If it survives, it MAY eventually achieve a low level of physical and psychological suffering, but only after passing through a long and very painful period of adjustment and only at the cost of permanently reducing human beings and many other living organisms to engineered products and mere cogs in the social machine. Furthermore, if the system survives, the consequences will be inevitable: There is no way of reforming or modifying the system so as to prevent it from depriving people of dignity and autonomy.

(I have not read the whole of his manifesto, but I keep returning to this point, so eventually I should.)

How different are we from the little bees who cannot live on their own, but each have their role in the buzzing hive? (This is where the spiteful mutant hypothesis comes in.) Bees don’t arrange themselves by talking it over and deciding that this bee would be happy visiting flowers and that bee would be happy guarding the hive. It’s all decided beforehand via bee genetics.

How much “free will” do we really have to chose our human social relations, and how much of it is instinctual? Do we chose whom we love and hate, whom we respect and whom we deem idiots? Did we chose who would invent a billion dollar company and who would be homeless?

(We don’t really know how far instincts and biology go, of course.)

Any genes that affect how human societies cohere and the social hierarchies we form would likely produce different results if found in different quantities in different groups, just like the genes in the mouse models. Such genes could predispose us to be more or less social, more or less aggressive, or perhaps to value some other elements in our groups.

One of the most under-discussed changes wrought by the modern era is the massive decrease in infant mortality. Our recent ancestors suffered infant mortality rates between 20 and 40 percent (sometimes higher.) Dead children were once a near-universal misery; today, almost all of them live.

Among the dead, of course, were some quantity of carriers of deleterious mutations, such as those predisposing one to walk off a cliff or to be susceptible to malaria. Today, our mutants survive–sometimes even those suffering extreme malfunctions.

This doesn’t imply that we need high disease levels to weed out bad mutations: the Native Americans had nice, low disease levels prior to contact with European and African peoples, but their societies seem to have been perfectly healthy. This low-disease state was probably the default our ancestors all enjoyed prior to the invention of agriculture and dense, urban living. They probably still had high rates of infant mortality by modern standards (I haven’t been able to find numbers, but our relatives the chimps and bonobos have infant mortality rates around 20-30%.)

That all said, I’m not convinced that all this so-called “autistic” behavior (eg, the mouse models) is bad. Humans who are focused on things instead of social relations have gifted us much of modern technology. Would we give up irascible geniuses like Isaac Newton just to be more hierarchical? The folks implicitly criticized in the “bioleninist” model are far more obsessed with social hierarchies (and their place in them) than I am. I do not want to live like them, constantly analyzing ever social interaction for whether it contains micro-slights or whether someone has properly acknowledged my exact social status (“That’s Doctor X, you sexist cretin.”)

I want to be left in peace.

Abuse

It’s a form of abuse to constantly tell someone things like “No one loves you,” “everyone hates you,” “you’re so awful, no one would ever put up with you,” etc. It’s worse, of course, if the person saying these things is someone the abused trusts, loves, or looks up to, like a parent or spouse.

What happens when someone starts to believe these sorts of lies? If they think that other people hate them or would do horrible things to them when they actually don’t? Would they come to believe that their abuser really was “they only one you can trust” and “just looking out for you”?

Every time something bad happens, they’d internalize it as yet another piece of evidence that the abuser is right: “Of course bad things happen to me–everyone hates me.” They would be afraid of the world, unable to trust anyone. How would they even begin to realize that they’ve been lied to?

It would be pretty awful if people were going around with incorrect ideas about the rates of police violence against them, too.

How many unarmed people did the police kill last year?

This is the total police killings of unarmed people, of all races, over the past 5 years. Of course, some of the “armed” people really weren’t, but we are still talking numbers similar to the number of people killed by bees and wasps each year:

Deaths by Wasps and Bees per year”

As for race:

This Y-axis is seems like a case of deceptive truncation, but the total number of unarmed Africans killed by the police in 2019 was 9. This is on the same order of magnitude as “killed by lightning” and “drowned in a bucket” (don’t worry, though, if you can read this, you’re too old to fall into a bucket and drown.)

But suppose we zoom out and assume that all of the “armed” suspects shot by the police really weren’t. This is obviously not true, but it constitutes a theoretical upper bound. The police killed about 240 black people total last year. By contrast, over 3,500 people drown each year; over 7,000 black people were murdered by non-police in 2018.

Oh, and these protests are now happening in the midst of a pandemic that has been killing over a thousand people per day. Any argument that police violence is a bigger concern than corona is statistically nuts.

I’ve noticed that, aside from the WAPO article, the exact number of unarmed people shot by the police was not easy to find. Most people want to talk about rates and percentages, rather than absolute numbers. This is understandable if you are trying to figure out if one group is more likely to get killed than another, but bad for figuring out how often something actually happens and whether or not you should be worried about it.

Look, I actually have a fair number of complaints about the police/judiciary/legal system, and there are reasonable arguments about excessive force, over criminalization, and bad prison conditions that I support.

But no one should be told that there is a giant conspiracy out there to kill them when there isn’t.

Conspiracies

 

Conspiracies generally fall into two camps: the secret sort, (which require that people be competent at organizing and not blabbing about what they’re doing) and the right out in the open sort (which only require that you not think of them as conspiracies). 

The secret sort are favored by garden-variety conspiracy theorists, and more easily dismissed because they require actually competent behavior from people with no one defecting and spilling the beans. In real life, large-scale conspiracies are rarely kept secret for long because people either mess up, or because they get in a power struggle and go tell others in order screw over their opponents. People are messy. 

The second sort of “conspiracy” isn’t really a conspiracy at all: it’s just people being people, acting in organized ways to accomplish their goals. They work completely out in the open and are totally honest about what they are doing because they do not think of themselves as part of a conspiracy. (Of course, many organizations–like corporations–take some pains to keep some of their activities private, but we don’t consider this a conspiracy because the organization’s overall goals are publicly stated.) 

Man is a political animal–that is, a social one. Social organization is an instinctual and spontaneous feature of human communities, from remote hunter gatherers to quilting bees. 

But since people generally have trouble keeping up with everything everyone else is doing (most people are busy just trying to keep up with their own affairs) the behavior of other organized groups of people can look to outsiders a lot like a conspiracy. 

Additionally, if you try to explain the organized behavior of other groups of people, it can sound like you are claiming there is a conspiracy simply because the person you are talking to is unaware that there is any organized group behavior going on at all. “Yes,” you try to explain, “They really are doing this–no, it’s not a conspiracy, it’s all out in the open, look I can get you a book about this–wait come back …” 

I’ve seen a lot of people debating whether or not the riots/protests are “organic” or “organized,” but the two categories are not necessarily opposed. Various antifa-type organizations have been around for decades (at least) and most of the people in them joined because they agree with antifa’s aims and want to be there–they aren’t being paid. Antifa makes no secret of its aims: anything you want to know about their objectives is easily found on the internet (if anything, they’re actively trying to convince people that their ideas and goals are good so people will join them). 

That doesn’t mean antifa does everything out in the open. If some antifa cell decides they’re going to lob molotovs into a building, they certainly might not post that publicly.  (By the same token, Apple keeps its plans for the next smartphone under lock and key.) But their goals are public. 

Should a big protest break out, like the one currently rocking the nation, antifa is already organized and ready to go. Whether one calls this a “conspiracy” or not depends, I suppose, on what one considers a conspiracy. 

Of course, antifa are only one sort of organization. Humans organize through churches and schools, social media and gossip chains. They organize when they need to get something done, like clean up a park or sell drugs, and disband when the need no longer exists. 

I heard this morning that certain Mexican gangs have taken to patrolling their neighborhoods in California, protecting local businesses from looters. This is not because gangs are good, but because it is in the nature of people. This is the critical flaw in anarchist, abolish-the-police thought: abolish the police, and you will just end up with something else that does the same thing as the police–but I guarantee you that gangs will not be nearly as polite about it as the police. If one form of order breaks down, another will take its place. Even Somalia, a nation that has endured a long period of almost no national governance, still has local systems of law enforced by feud, complicated feud insurance systems, and judges. You cannot escape the polis.

Of course, all of this does not preclude the possibility of actual conspiracies. 

 

Stay safe out there.