This blog is now 1,000 posts long, which I think calls for a bit of celebration.
I started this blog because I found the idea that evolution–a process normally thought of as turning fins to feet and gills to lungs–could also code for emergent, group-level behavior like the building of termite mounds or nation states fascinating. Could evolution code for other things? Could it give us male and female behavior? Emotions? Political preferences?
I started reading JayMan’s work, then Peter Frost and HBD Chick, and of course Cochran and Harpending. Each of these blogs had new (at least to me) and fascinating ideas about why humans behave the many ways they do. Then came Slate Star Codex and Unqualified Reservations. There were others, of course; a complete listing of one’s intellectual predecessors is always impossible.
Evolution is ultimately a numbers game: if more people who do X have children than people who do Y, then X is likely to become more common than Y–even if we all believe that Y is better than X.
This gets interesting when X is not obviously mediated by genetics–your eye color, sans contacts, is clearly genetic, but the number of years you spend in school is influenced by external factors like whether schools exist in your society. This is where some people get hung up on causation. We don’t need to posit a gene that causes people to get more or less school. Maybe your village has a school because a mountain climber got lost nearby, your village rescued him, and in gratitude, he built you a school, while the village on the other side of the mountain doesn’t have a school because no mountain climber got lost there. Once a school exists, though, it can start having effects, and if those effects are not random, we’ll see genetic correlations.
If people who have more education make more money and end up buying more food and raising more children, then school is exerting a selective effect on society by causing the kids who happened to live near the school to have more children. From an ecological standpoint, the school is operating like a spring in a desert–we get more growth near the spring than far away from it, and whatever traits were common in the village–even ones that have nothing to do with education–will become more numerous in the overall population. If this trend continues, then the cultural habit of “going to school” will continue to proliferate.
We can also posit the opposite case: in the village with the school, kids spend many years at school and end up marrying later and are more educated about things like “birth control” than their neighbors on the other side of the mountain. The kids on the other side of the mountain marry younger and have a bunch of unintended children. In this case, education is suppressing fertility; in this niche, education is like a drought. The educated kids have fewer children of their own, and whatever traits the uneducated kids happen to have spread through society because there are now much more of them (at least as a percent of the total). If this trend continues, then the cultural habit of “going to school” may well die out.
In both of these cases, education caused a change in the distribution of genetic traits in the overall population without requiring any genetic predispositions from the students involved. We are looking at the evolution of the whole society.
But this is a highly constrained example; it is rare in places like the modern US to find areas where one village has a school and the next does not. Once schools are everywhere, they’re not going to select for (or against) “living near a school.” The traits that cause a person to attend more years of schooling or do better in school will be less random–traits like conscientiousness, ability to recognize letters, or family income. In an agricultural society with no schools, raw, physical strength may be at a premium as people must wrest their living from the soil, rocks, trees, and beasts. This selects for physical strength. Once we introduce schools, if the better educated have more children, then physical strength becomes less important, and its prominence in the next generation diminishes. The ability to sit in a chair for long hours may be positively selected, leading to a proliferation of this trait.
This is gene-culture co-evolution–a cultural change can shift the balance of genes in a society, and that in turn can cause further cultural changes, which cause more genetic changes.
I would like to pause and note just how annoying the “but you haven’t proven causation!” crowd is:
Imagine if I said that I thought the blood circulates through the body in a loop instead of being generated anew by the heart with every pump, and someone protested that blood couldn’t possibly circulate because I hadn’t shown any way for blood to get from the arteries to the veins and back to the heart.
This was a real debate in physiology. That the heart pumps is obvious. That veins and arteries carry blood is also obvious. That people die if you cut them open and let the blood drain out, though, mystified doctors for centuries.
Capillaries, unfortunately for many patients, are too small to see with the naked eye. Without any mechanism to return blood from the arteries to the heart, doctors refused to believe that it did. They instead believed that blood was produced anew with every heartbeat and was consumed at our extremities. Bleeding patients, therefore, shouldn’t cause any great difficulties.
The fact that we could not see capillaries before the invention of the microscope should not have caused doctors to reject the theory of circulation, only to say that a mechanism had not yet been found to make it work. The circulation hypothesis did a better job of explaining various facts of human anatomy–like the existence of veins carrying blood to the heart and the habit of patients to die after bleeding–than the heart-generation hypothesis.
The insistence on clinging to the older theory due to the lack of a capillary mechanism lead, of course, to the deaths of thousands of patients. (For more on the history of medicine, anatomy, and circulation, I recommend William Bynum’s A Little History of Science.)
How something works is vastly secondary to the question of whether it works at all in the first place. If it works, it works. If you can’t figure out how, you
call it magic admit that you don’t know and hope that someday it’ll be clear. What you don’t do is claim that a thing cannot be true or cannot actually work simply because you don’t understand how it happens.
I don’t understand how airplanes stay in the sky, but that doesn’t make them fall down. Reality doesn’t stop just because we don’t understand it; to think that it does is pure, asinine hubris.
The next objection I commonly hear to the idea that cultural changes (like the proliferation of schools) could trigger changes in the genetic makeup of society is that “evolution doesn’t work that fast.”
This is a funny objection. The speed of evolution depends on the nature of the trait we are discussing. Developing a radically new trait, or greatly modifying an existing one, such as developing the ability to breath air instead of water, does indeed take a long time–sometimes millions or even billions of years. But simply modifying the distribution of existing traits in a population can be done nearly instantly–if an invading army lops the heads off of anyone over 5’9″, the average height of the population will fall immediately. From a genetic perspective, this is “negative selection” against height, and the population has “evolved” to be shorter.
(You might object that this is too artificial an example, so consider the inverse: a situation where everyone over a certain size used to die, but due to environmental changes they now survive. Modern obstetrics and the cesarean section have rescued mothers of large babies from the once-common fate of death in childbirth. This was of course often fatal to the infants, as well, and prevented their parents from producing any further children. Large babies were a serious evolutionary problem for our ancestors, but much less so for us, which has probably contributed to the rise in average heights over the past century.)
Usually selection is less extreme, but the point remains: traits that already exist (and vary) in a population, like height, weight, blood type, or temperament, can be selected for (or against) on very short timescales.
In fact, human societies are always selecting for some traits; this means that we are always evolving. The distribution of traits in humans today is not the same as the distribution of traits in humans 20 years ago, much less 100 years ago.
And we can look at all of the things humans are being selected for (or selecting themselves for) and speculate how this will change society. Religious people have more children than atheists, and some religions produce far more children than other religions. This trend is juxtaposed against the massive rise in atheism over the past few decades. Will atheism continue to spread to the children of the religious, or will the religious “core” be effectively immune and overwhelm the remaining agnostics with numbers?
Education (or perhaps it is just a proxy for intelligence) seems to have different effects on different folks and different levels of society. Highschool dropouts have a lot of kids. People with PhDs have a fair number of kids. People who have merely graduated from college, by contrast, have the fewest kids.
Fertility is also different for men and women, with more educated women taking a bigger fertility hit than educated men.
Any discussion of “what’s up with the American middle/working class” has to address facts like these–our country is effectively bifurcating into two “success” models: one very high achieving and one very low achieving. The middle, it seems, is getting cut out.
But we can apply evolutionary theory to much more than humans and their societies. We can analyze ideas, transportation networks, technology, etc.
My first–and probably best–idea in this area was that the idea that the way we transmit ideas influences the nature of our ideas. One of the biggest changes of the past century has been a massive change in the way we communicate, from the rise of mass media to the explosion of social media. Before radio and TV, most people got most of their information from people they knew personally, mostly their families. Today, we get most of our information from total strangers.
Ideas we get from strangers I refer to as meme viruses, (meme as in “unit of idea,” not “funny picture on the internet”) because horizontal transmission resembles the transmission of viruses. Ideas we get from our families I refer to as mitochondrial memes, because vertical transmission resembles the transmission of mitochondrial DNA.
Since the interests of strangers are different from the interests of your close family (your parents are much more interested in you making lots of money, getting married, and making grandbabies than strangers are), they will tend to promote different sorts of ideas. Your parents generally want you to succeed, while strangers would prefer that you do things that help them succeed.
It is this change in the way we communicate, rather than the actions or intentions of any particular group, that I think explains the rise of many modern political trends. (This is the condensed version; I recommend reading one of my posts on memes if you want more.)
I am obviously interested in politics, but not in the conventional sense. I have very little interest in anything associated with particular people in politics, outside of a few historical figures. I have no interest in the latest thing Nancy Pelosi or Emmanuel Macron has been up to. I think people place too much importance on individuals; I am more interested in broad trends (like the spread of technology) that are much bigger and further-reaching than any individual politicians (often their bigger than individual countries).
I’ve come over the years to the conclusion that conventional politics drive people to do (and say) very stupid things. People develop a tribal identity attached to one side or another, and suddenly everything their side does is good and sensible, and everything the other side does is nefarious and dumb. This is not a bad instinct when your enemies have pointy spears and want to turn you into lunch, but it’s terrible when your enemy disagrees with you on optimal interest rates.
My second purpose in founding this blog was to reach out to people who were, as I see it, harmed by the cult-like behavior of modern leftism. When I say “cult-like,” I mean it. Atheism is on the rise, but religious thinking and behavior remains strong. When peoples’ self-identities as “good people” become linked to their membership in political tribes, the threat of excommunication becomes particularly powerful.
Here’s a public example:
… far more unsettling was what happened two weeks later, when knitters who claim to be champions of social justice went after a gay man within the community because he’d written a satirical poem suggesting (correctly) that all the recent anti-racism mobbings might be having a toxic effect on the community. …
The next day, Taylor’s husband Benjamin Till, a composer (who also happens to be Jewish) posted on Sockmatician’s account: “This is Nathan’s husband, Benjamin. At 3 pm today, Nathan was admitted to [the emergency room at] Barnet Hospital. …
Till also wrote on his blog about what had happened:
… Nathan disabled comments when the sheer weight of them became too much, but the following morning, his other Instagram posts, and then his Twitter feed had been hijacked by the haters. The taunts continued. He was a white supremacist, a Nazi apologist…He started obsessively reading the posts but became increasingly worked up, then more and more erratic and then suddenly he snapped, screaming like a terrified animal, smashing boxes and thumping himself. I was forced to wrestle him to the ground and hold onto him for dear life as the waves of pain surged through his body. He made a run for the car keys. He said he wanted to drive at 100 miles per hour until he crashed. I called our doctor and they could hear him screaming in the background and said I was to immediately take him to [the hospital], where he was instantly assessed and put on suicide watch …
This was not the end of Nathan’s ordeal at the hands of people who supposedly believe in “social justice” and helping the powerless, as people continued piling on (yelling at him in public) because of the “harm” he had caused.
I wish I could reach out to everyone like Nathan and tell them that they’re not bad, cults are bad.
The right has its own issues, but I come from a leftist background and so am responding to what I know personally, not abstractly.
From time to time I get a question about the future of HBD (human bio-diversity). The online HBD community was quite vibrant about a decade ago, but many of the brightest lights have faded. Henry Harpending of Westhunter and co-author of The 10,000 Year Explosion has sadly passed away. HBD Chick and Jayman are both occupied with their own lives.
The future of HBD isn’t in blogs or the internet generally (though we can read about it here). It’s over in real genetics research. Yes, there are some subjects that academics don’t want to touch for fear of losing their jobs, but there are many researchers forging paths into fascinating new territory. The field of ancient DNA is unlocking the story of human migration and dispersal, from Neanderthals to Anglo Saxons. Thanks to aDNA, we’ve discovered a whole new Human species, the Denisovans, that interbred with the ancestors of modern Homo sapiens (as did the Neanderthals). We have also discovered “ghost” species in our DNA that we have no name for.
The field of modern DNA is also advancing; we’re learning new things all the time. CRISPRing humans is just one fascinating possibility.
Imagine the ability to remove simple genetic flaws that cause painful and fatal diseases, make ourselves beautiful or smarter. How much are 20 IQ points worth? One study found that people with IQs of 100 average $58,000 a year, while 120s made $128,000. $70,000 a year, averaged over a few decades of working life, (less intelligent people tend to enter the workforce and start earning younger, so it’s not a simple multiplication problem), adds up quickly.
Let’s imagine a scenario in which CRISPR actually works. Only the wealthy–and perhaps those with genetic diseases willing to shell out thousands or covered by insurance–will be able to afford it. The current bifurcation trend will become even more extreme as the poor continue reproducing normally, while the wealthy make themselves smarter, healthier, and prettier.
But if CRISPR confers advantages to society as a whole–for example, if smarter people make fabulous new inventions that everyone benefits from–then we could see foundations, charities, and even welfare programs aimed at making sure everyone has the CRISPR advantage.
After all, if an extra year in school boosts IQ by 3.4 points (I’m not saying it does, but let’s assume), then 6 extra years in school will give you 20.4 points. We pay about $10,600 per pupil per year for public schools, so those six years are worth $63,600. If you can CRISPR 20 IQ points for less, then it’s a better deal.
Of course, CRISPR might just be a pipe dream that gives people cancer.
Whatever happens, the real future of HBD lies in real labs with real budgets, not online blogs. I’m just here to share, discuss, and think–and hopefully there will be enough interesting ideas to discuss for another thousand posts.
Thanks for being part of all these discussions. Blogs are nothing without readers, after all.