A Response to Epigenetics and Ethics: Rights and Consequences

Dr. Robison–author of Epigenetics and Public Policy–asks and essential question: Where does the right to swing one’s epigenome end? Or as he puts it:

If epigenetics does introduce scientific novelties to the conventional understanding of biology, then according to the model it also has equally significant ethical and political implications.

What responsibility do I–as an egg-bearing person–have to ensure the health of my children and grandchildren’s epigenenomes? Society affirms my right to smoke cigarettes, even though they may give me cancer down the road–it’s my body and I am allowed to do what I wish with it. But what if my smoking cigarettes today causes cancer in a future, as yet unborn grandchild whom I never meet? What about her right to chose not to be exposed to carcinogens? Who am I to take that from her–and what right has society, the government, or anyone else to tell me what I may or may not do with my own body in the interests of some future people who may never come into existence?

I am summarizing, perhaps badly; you may read the whole post over on Dr. Robison’s blog. (Of course Robison is himself trying to summarize an argument I am sure he lays out in much more detail in his book.)

Here is my hastily written response, in the interest of clear conversational threading:

I’m not sure epigenetics constitutes such a fundamental shift in our understandings of genetics and inheritance as to actually warrant much change in our present policies. For example, you question whether policies should be enacted to restrict a 12 yr old girl’s right to eat what she wishes in defense of her unborn grandchild’s epigenome, but we today don’t even restrict a pregnant woman’s right to drink or smoke. Cocaine is illegal, but last time I checked, women didn’t go to prison for giving birth to crack babies. For that matter, women are allowed to kill unborn babies. I’m not commenting pro or against abortion, just noting that it is legal and most people consider death kind of a big deal. So I don’t think society is about to start outlawing stuff because of its negative effects two generations down the road.

On the other hand, if you look at the data on smoking, rates have definitely been falling ever since the tobacco-cancer link became news. The gov’t didn’t have to outlaw smoking for a lot of women to stop smoking for their children’s health.

But let’s return to the philosophical argument. All men are created equal… or are they? I do not think the Founding Fathers ever meant equality in a genetic sense. They could see with their own eyes that some men were tall and others short, some wise and others foolish, some virtuous and others criminal. They could see see that sons and daughters took after their parents and that a great many people started life in horribly unfair circumstances while others lived in luxury. They could see the cruel unfairness of disease, disability, and early death. Their rejection was not of biological or factual inequalities but of spiritual inequality. They rejected the notion that some men are created special by God to rule over others, and some men are created inferior by God, to be ruled over.

You state, “However, the evidence emerging from epigenetics suggests this is not the case. Instead of individuals of each generation being born with a pristine copy of their biological essence, they are inheriting a genetic endowment riddled with markers of the experiences of their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, and so on. And these inherited epigenetic markers, as more and more research is showing, are having direct effects on the physical and mental health of individuals from causes not actually experienced by these individuals.”

I think there is a mistake here in regarding genetics as “pristine” in some form. What if my mother is an anxious person, and I, through environmental exposure, grow into a similarly anxious person? What if my mother has a gene for anxiety, and I inherit it? What if I possess a de novo genetic mutation that causes me to be anxious? And what if I suffer a genetic deletion in one of my chromosomes that causes anxiety? How is any of this different, functionally, from some trauma my mother suffered (say, a car accident) causing epigenetic changes that are subsequently passed on to me?

What is pristine about Down’s Syndrome, Williams’, or Klinefelter’s? Or just having the random bad luck to get genes for short, dumb, and ugly?

“For example, research in epigenetics shows that the choices and experiences of individuals in one generation are conditioning the basic nature of individuals of subsequent generations, which indelibly affects how those new individuals will exercise their own rights. ”

It can’t be indelible. For starters, you only inherit half of each parent’s genome–thus half their epigenome. So right there’s a 50% chance you won’t inherit any particular epigenetic marker. By gen two we’re talking 25% chance, and that’s not counting the constant re-writing of our epigenomes. However, I don’t think the policy implications for countries are all that different from our current thinking. We can say, for example, “If we have X level of pollution in the water, then Y number of people will get cancer,” and it’s a public health problem even if we don’t know “they’ll get cancer because of epigenetics.”

So let’s broaden the inquiry a bit. Not how does epigenetics impact classical liberalism (which is behind us, anyway,) but how do genetics, epigenetics, heritability, et at all influence our modern sensibilities? Modern liberalism is built almost as a reaction against former racialist notions of “blood”, with a consequent belief that people are, on average, about genetically equal. This butts up against the realization that some people are gifted and talented from birth, which many people quietly rationalize away while knowing they are being a bit dishonest, perhaps on the grounds that this is tantamount to statistical noise.

But the whole notion of “meritocracy” becomes more problematic if we admit that there’s a large genetic (or accidental, or environmental, or anything outside of free will,) contribution to IQ, educational attainment, mental illness, your chances of getting a good job, how other people treat you (because of attractiveness,) etc. Should a person who is dumb through no fault of their own suffer poverty? Should an ugly person be denied a job or a date? There’s an essential unfairness to it, after all.

But by the same token, what are you going to do about it? Declare that everyone under a certain IQ gets free money? What sort of incentives does that set up for society? And what does it do to someone’s self-image if they are Officially Delcared Stupid?

But this is all focused on the negative. What if we find ways to make people smarter, healthier, stronger? I think we’d take them. Sure, we’d have a few hold-outs who worry about “playing god,” (much as today we have people who worry about vaccines despite the massive health improvements public vaccination campaigns have cause.) But in the end we’d take them. Similarly, in the end, I think most people would try to avoid damaging their descendants’ epigenomes–even if not through direct public policy.

 

Addendum: while I am skeptical of most claims about epigenetics, eg, people claiming that epigenetic trauma can be transmitted for over a century, there do seem to be some things that cause what we can here characterize as multi-generational epigenetic effects. For example, the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES), given to pregnant women to prevent miscarriages back in the 70s, not only causes cancer in the women it was given to, but also in their daughters. (It also results in intersex disorders in male fetuses.) In the third generation (that is, the sons daughters of the fetuses that were exposed to DES their mothers took during pregnancy,) there are still effects, like an increased risk of irregular periods. This is not necessarily “epigenetic” but similar enough to include in the conversation.

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The Empathy Trap

People think memetic viruses are just going to ask politely about infecting you, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses: “Hello, can I talk to you today about the importance of WWIII with Russia?”

No. Mind-viruses are not polite. They USE you. They use your empathy and compassion to make you feel like a shit person for rejecting them. They throw dying children in your face and demand that you start a war to save them.

They hijack your sense of yourself as a good person.

I call this the empathy trap.

For example:

Why did this take Stone Cold’s breath away? Why is it shocking?

It’s a basically true statement– the 3/5ths compromise originated in 1783 and was still around in 1789, when the 2nd Amendment was proposed–but soare “California became the 31st American state when I was deemed 3/5ths of a person,” “Napoleon invaded Russia when I was deemed 3/5ths of a person” and “The New York Times was founded, the safety elevator was invented, Massachusetts passed the nation’s first child employment laws, the first telegrams were sent, and Jane Eyre was published when I was deemed 3/5ths of a person.”

A lot happened between 1783 and 1861.

As unpleasant as the 3/5ths compromise is to think back on, we should remember that it was not passed because proponents thought black people only counted as “3/5ths of a person,” but because they didn’t want slave owners using census counts of non-voting slaves to get more votes for their states in the federal government. The 3/5ths compromise actually reduced the power of the slave-owning states relative to the non-slave owning states, in exchange for a break on taxes.

So this isn’t shocking because it’s factually true (I can come up with a whole list of equally true but unshocking statements) nor because the 3/5ths compromise was evil.

Perhaps it is shocking because it points out how old the 2nd Amendment is? But there are many other equally old–or older–things we find completely mundane. Mozart was writing operas in the 1790s; US copyright law began in the 1790s; Edward Jenner developed his smallpox vaccine in 1796; Benjamin Franklin invented the “swim fin” or flippers back in 1717. I don’t think anyone’s throwing out their flippers just because the concept is older than the entire country.

No; it’s shocking because “I was deemed 3/5ths of a person” appeals immediately to your sense of empathy.

Do you respond, “That doesn’t matter”?

“What do you mean, it doesn’t matter that I was considered only 3/5ths of a person? That matters a lot to me.”

“Oh, no, of course, I didn’t mean that it doesn’t matter like that, of course I understand that matters to you–”

Now you’re totally off-topic.

In order to see that this is a non sequitor, you first have to step back from the emotion. Push it aside, if you must. Yes, slavery was evil, but what does it have to do with the 2nd Amendment? Nothing. Reject the frame.

Mitochondrial memes are passed down from your parents and other trusted members of your family and community. You don’t typically have to be convinced of them; children tend to just believe their parents. That’s why you believed all of that business about Santa Claus. Meme viruses, by contrast, come from the wider community, typically strangers. Meme viruses have to convince you to adopt them, which can be quite a bit harder. This is why so many people follow their parents’ religion, and so few people convert to new religions as adults. Most religious transmission is basically mitochondrial–even if the Jehovah’s Witnesses show up at your doorstep fairly often.

To spread faster and more effectively, therefore, meme viruses have to convince you to lower your defenses and let them spread. They convince you that believing and spreading them is part of being a good person. They demand that if you really care about issue X, then you must also care about issue W, Y, and Z. “If you want to fight racism, you also have to go vegan, because all systems of oppression are intersectionally linked,” argues the vegan. “If you love Jesus, you must support capitalism because those godless commies hate Jesus.” Jesus probably also supported socialism and veganism, depending on whom you ask. “This photo of Kim Kardashian balancing a wine glass on her ass is problematic because once someone took a picture of a black woman in the same pose and that was racist.” “Al Qaeda launched an attack on 9-11, therefore we need to topple Saddam Hussein.” “A Serbian anarchist shot some Austro-Hungarian arch duke, therefore we need to have WWI.” “Assad used chemical weapons, therefore the US needs to go to war with Russia.”

Once you are sensitive to this method of framing, you’ll notice it fairly often.

 

 

Thoughts on the Causes of Polyandry and Polygyny

Warning: speculation

Toda woman and two men (though the Wikipedia doesn’t claim that these are her husbands.)

While polygyny (the practice of having multiple wives) is fairly common throughout the world, its inverse, polyandry (multiple husbands) is quite rare. Off the top of my head, I’m familiar with only two polyandrous societies: the Inuit (Eskimo) of Canada and the Toda of India. (Note: while this article uses the present tense for ease of writing,we are actually discussing historical situations. Modern social norms in both of these groups are probably different.)

What inspires similar marriage customs in such dissimilar environments?

The Inuit live in one of the world’s most extreme environments, where death is little more than a blizzard or failed hunt away. It’s an environment where private property effectively doesn’t exist because no one can consistently secure enough food to survive–without sharing, your neighbors will die, and if your neighbors die, so will you.

When every family faces the strong and constant threat of starvation, excess children are killed; since women do not do the heavy work of hunting seals and caribou in Inuit society, female children are more likely to be killed than male

The result is a skewed sex ratio upon adulthood: more males than females. In a society with strong norms about sharing, men who cannot secure a wife of their own accept that they must share or go without.

Inuit man ice fishing, using two-handed line technique

While the Toda live in a much lusher environment than the Inuit, I have the impression that land scarcity (due to encroachment by their neighbors) was an issue. If a population is already eating all of the food produced by its land and cannot obtain new land or make the land more productive, then the population cannot grow; each couple can only afford to raise two children. A woman who marries young can have a dozen children; even if disease takes half of them, that’s still 4 more children than she and one husband can support. The result, again, is infanticide. But if a woman takes 3 husbands (typically brothers), the situation is ameliorated: she can now afford to raise 4 children.

So polyandry: limited resources=> infanticide=> not enough women to go around.

Polygyny, by contrast, seems to happen more often in cases where men (or at least some men) can afford to raise a great many children. Often they achieve this by taking resources from other men (eg, an emperor can afford a large harem because he taxes peasants, or a warlord may just take wealth directly,) but sometimes they luck into great abundance, like the early Mormons.

 

Of course, some men practicing polygyny can force other men to practice polyandry.

(Previous posts on the Inuit here, here, and here; Toda here.)

Maybe Terrorists are Actually Just Morons?

Gwern has a fascinating essay about terrorism, Terrorism-is-not-about-Terror:

There is a commonly-believed strategic model of terrorism which we could describe as follows: terrorists are people who are ideologically motivated to pursue specific unvarying political goals; to do so, they join together in long-lasting organizations and after the failure of ordinary political tactics, rationally decide to efficiently & competently engage in violent attacks on (usually) civilian targets to get as much attention as possible and publicity for their movement, and inspire fear & terror in the civilian population, which will pressure its leaders to solve the problem one way or another, providing support for the terrorists’ favored laws and/or their negotiations with involved governments, which then often succeed in gaining many of the original goals, and the organization dissolves.

Unfortunately, this model, is in almost every respect, empirically false.

It’s a great essay, so go read the whole thing before we continue. Don’t worry; I’ll wait.

Done?

Good.

Now, since I know half of you didn’t actually read the essay, I’ll summarize: terrorists are really bad at accomplishing their “objectives.” By any measure, they are really bad at it. Simply doing nothing would, in most cases, further their political goals more effectively.

This is in part because terrorists tend not to conquer and hold land, and in part because terrorism tends to piss off its targets, making them less likely to give in to the terrorists’ demands. Consider 9-11: sure, the buildings fell down, but did it result in America conceding to any of Al-Qaeda’s demands?

The article quotes Abrams 2012:

Jones and Libicki (2008) then examined a larger sample, the universe of known terrorist groups between 1968 and 2006. Of the 648 groups identified in the RAND-MIPT Terrorism Incident database, only 4% obtained their strategic demands. … Chenoweth and Stephan (2008, 2011) provide additional empirical evidence that meting out pain hurts non-state actors at the bargaining table. … These statistical findings are reinforced with structured in-case comparisons highlighting that escalating from nonviolent methods of protest such as petitions, sit-ins, and strikes to deadly attacks tends to dissuade government compromise. … Other statistical research (Abrahms, 2012, Fortna, 2011) demonstrates that when terrorist attacks are combined with such discriminate violence, the bargaining outcome is not additive; on the contrary, the pain to the population significantly decreases the odds of government concessions.3

(Aside: Remember, right-wing violence doesn’t work. It’s stupid and you will fail at accomplishing anything.)

Another “mystery” about terrorism is that it actually doesn’t happen very often. It’s not that hard to drive a truck into a crowd or attack people with a machete. Armies are expensive; coughing on grocery store produce is cheap.

If terrorism is 1. ineffective and 2. not even used that often, why do terrorist groups exist at all?

Terrorists might just be dumb, stupid people who try to deal with their problems by blowing them up, but there’s no evidence to this effect–terrorists are not less intelligent than the average person in their societies, anyway. People who are merely dumb and violent tend to get into fights with their neighbors, not take airplanes hostage.

Gwern suggests a different possibility: People join terrorist organizations because they want to be friends with the other terrorists. They’re like social clubs, but instead of bowling, you talk about how going on jihad would be totally awesome.

Things people crave: Meaning. Community. Brotherhood.

Terrorist organizations provide these to their members, most of whom don’t actually blow themselves up.

Gwern quotes Sageman’s Understanding Terrorist Networks:

Friendships cultivated in the jihad, just as those forged in combat in general, seem more intense and are endowed with special significance. Their actions taken on behalf of God and the umma are experienced as sacred. This added element increases the value of friendships within the clique and the jihad in general and diminishes the value of outside friendships.

Enough about terrorists; let’s talk about Americans:

“Jihad” is currently part of the Islamic cultural script–that is, sometimes Muslims see some form of “jihad” as morally acceptable. (They are not unique in committing terrorism, though–Marxist terrorists have created trouble throughout Latin America, for instance, and the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka were one of the world’s deadliest groups.)

Thankfully, though, few major groups in the US see jihad or terrorist violence as acceptable, but… we have our exceptions.

For example, after a Jewish professor, Bret Weinstein, declined to stay home on a “Day of Absence” intended to force whites away from Evergreen State College, WA, violent protests erupted. Bands of students armed with bats and tasers roamed the campus, searching for Weinstein; the poor professor was forced to flee and eventually resign.

(More on Evergreen.)

Antifa are a growing concern in the US, both on-campus and off. As Wikipedia notes:

Antifa groups, along with black bloc activists, were among those who protested the 2016 election of Donald Trump.[10][44] They also participated in the February 2017 Berkeley protests against alt-right[47][48][49][50] speaker Milo Yiannopoulos, where they gained mainstream attention,[27] with media reporting them “throwing Molotov cocktails and smashing windows”[2] and causing $100,000 worth of damage.[51]

Antifa counter-protesters at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 “certainly used clubs and dyed liquids against the white supremacists”.[39]

During a Berkeley protest on August 27, 2017, an estimated one hundred antifa protesters joined a crowd of 2,000–4,000 counter-protesters to attack a reported “handful” of alt-right demonstrators and Trump supporters who showed up for a “Say No to Marxism” rally that had been cancelled by organizers due to security concerns. Some antifa activists beat and kicked unarmed demonstrators[51][63] and threatened to smash the cameras of anyone who filmed them.[64]

Antifa, like terrorist groups, typically attract folks who are single and have recently left home–young people who have just lost the community they were raised in and in search of a new one.

The article recounts an amusing incident when a terrorist organization wanted to disband a cell, but struggled to convince its members to abandon their commitment to sacrificing themselves on behalf of jihad. Finally they hit upon a solution: they organized social get-togethers with women, then incentivised the men to get married, get jobs, and have babies. Soon all of the men were settled and raising children, too busy and invested in their new families to risk sacrificing it all for jihad. The cell dissolved.

Even Boko Haram was founded in response to the difficulties young men in Nigeria face in affording brides:

Our recent study found that marriage markets and inflationary brideprice are a powerful driver of participation in violence and drive recruitment into armed groups. Armed groups often arrange low-cost marriages for their members, help members afford brideprice, or provide extra-legal opportunities to acquire the capital necessary to take a wife. In Nigeria, in the years in which Boko Haram gained influence under founder Mohammed Yusuf, “items required for [a] successful [marriage] celebration kept changing in tune with inflation over the years.”66  A resident of the Railroad neighborhood of Maiduguri, where Yusuf established his mosque, recalled that in just a few years, Yusuf had facilitated more than 500 weddings. The group also provided support for young men to become “okada drivers,” who gained popularity for their affordable motorbike taxi services — who often used their profits to afford marriage. Thus, Boko Haram’s early recruits were often attracted by the group’s facilitation of marriage. Even in the aftermath of Yusuf’s assassination by the Nigerian state and the rise of Abubakar Shekau, the group has continued to exploit obstacles to marriage to attract supporters. The women and girls that are abducted by the group, estimated to number more than 6,000, are frequently married off to members of the group.

Antifa of course aren’t the only people in the US who commit violence; the interesting fact here is their organization. As far as I know, Dylan Roof killed more people than Antifa, but Roof acted alone.

source

I suggest, therefore, that the principle thing driving Antifa (and similar organizations) isn’t a rational pursuit of their stated objectives (did driving Milo out of Berkley actually protect any illegal immigrants from deportation?) but the same social factors that drive Muslims to join terrorist groups: camaraderie, brotherhood, and the feeling like they are leading meaningful, moral lives by sacrificing themselves for their chosen cause.

Right-wingers do this, too (the military is an obvious source of “meaning” and “brotherhood” in many people’s lives).

And the pool of unmarried people to recruit into extremist organizations is only growing in America.

We have always been at war with Eurasia--I mean, supported gay marriage
CONFORM

But we don’t have to look to organizations that commit violence to find this pattern. Why change one’s avatar to a rainbow pattern to celebrate gay marriage or overlay a French flag after the Charlie Hebdo attack?

Why spend hours “fighting racism” by “deconstructing whiteness” online when you could do far more to help black people by handing out sandwiches at your local homeless shelter? (The homeless would also appreciate a hot lasagna.) What percentage of people who protest Islamophobia have actually bothered to befriend some Muslims and express support toward them?

The obvious answer is that these activities enhance the actor’s social standing among their friends and online compatriots. Congratulations received for turning your profile picture different colors: objective achieved. Actions that would actually help the targeted group require more effort and return less adulation, since they have to be done in real life.

Liberal groups seem to be better at social organizing–thus I’ve had an easier time coming up with liberal examples of this phenomenon. Conservative political organizations, at least in the US, seem to be smaller and offer less in the way of social benefits (this may be in part because conservatives are more likely to be married, employed, and have children, and because conservatives are more likely to channel such energies into their churches,) but they also do their share of social signaling that doesn’t achieve its claimed goal. “White pride” organizations, for example, generally do little to improve whites’ public image.

But is this an aberration? Or are things operating as designed? What’s the point of friendship and social standing in the first place?

Interestingly, in Jane Goodall‘s account of chimps in the Gombe, we see parallels to the origins of human social structures and friendships. Only male chimps consistently have what we would call “friendships;” females instead tend to live in groups with their children. Male friends benefit from each other’s assistance in hunting and controlling access to other food, like the coveted bananas. A single strong male may dominate a troop of chimps, but a coalition can bring him to a bloody end. Persistent dominance of a chimp troop (and thus dominance of food) is thus easier for males who have a strong coalition on their side–that is, friends.

Man is a political animal:

From these things therefore it is clear that the city-state is a natural growth, and that man is by nature a political animal, and a man that is by nature and not merely by fortune citiless is either low in the scale of humanity or above it … inasmuch as he is solitary, like an isolated piece at draughts.

And why man is a political animal in a greater measure than any bee or any gregarious animal is clear. For nature, as we declare, does nothing without purpose; and man alone of the animals possesses speech. … speech is designed to indicate the advantageous and the harmful, and therefore also the right and the wrong; for it is the special property of man in distinction from the other animals that he alone has perception of good and bad and right and wrong and the other moral qualities, and it is partnership in these things that makes a household and a city-state.

Most people desire to be members in good standing in their communities:

Thus also the city-state is prior in nature to the household and to each of us individually. [20] For the whole must necessarily be prior to the part; since when the whole body is destroyed, foot or hand will not exist except in an equivocal sense… the state is also prior by nature to the individual; for if each individual when separate is not self-sufficient, he must be related to the whole state as other parts are to their whole, while a man who is incapable of entering into partnership, or who is so self-sufficing that he has no need to do so, is no part of a state, so that he must be either a lower animal or a god.

Therefore the impulse to form a partnership of this kind is present in all men by nature… –Aristotle, Politics, Book 1

A couple of other relevant quotes:

From Eysenck’s work on political extremism

Source

The spread of the internet has changed both who we’re talking to (the people in our communities) and how we engage with them, resulting in, I hypothesize, a memetic environment that increasingly favors horizontally (rather than vertically) transmitted memes. (If you are not familiar with this theory, I wrote about it here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.) Vertically spread memes tend to come from your parents and are survival-oriented; horizontal memes come from your friends and are social. A change in the memetic environment, therefore, has the potential to change the landscape of social, moral, and political ideas people frequently encounter–and has allowed us to engage in nearly costless, endless social signaling.

The result of that, it appears, is political polarization:

Source
Source

According to Pew:

A decade ago, the public was less ideologically consistent than it is today. In 2004, only about one-in-ten Americans were uniformly liberal or conservative across most values. Today, the share who are ideologically consistent has doubled: 21% express either consistently liberal or conservative opinions across a range of issues – the size and scope of government, the environment, foreign policy and many others.

The new survey finds that as ideological consistency has become more common, it has become increasingly aligned with partisanship. Looking at 10 political values questions tracked since 1994, more Democrats now give uniformly liberal responses, and more Republicans give uniformly conservative responses than at any point in the last 20 years.

This, of course, makes it harder for people to find common ground for compromises.

So if we want a saner, less histrionic political culture, the first step may be encouraging people to settle down, get married, and have children, then work on building communities that let people feel a sense of meaning in their real lives.

Still, I think letting your friends convince you that blowing yourself is a good idea is pretty dumb.

The Value of Viral Memes

Note: “Memes” on this blog is used as it is in the field of memetics, representing units of ideas that are passed from person to person, not in the sense of “funny cat pictures on the internet.”

“Mitochondrial memes” are memes that are passed vertically from parent to child, like “it’s important to eat your dinner before desert” or “brush your teeth twice a day or your teeth will rot out.”

“Meme viruses” (I try to avoid the confusing phrase, “viral memes,”) are memes that are transmitted horizontally through society, like chain letters and TV news.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time warning about some of the potential negative results of meme viruses, but today I’d like to discuss one of their greatest strengths: you can transmit them to other people without using them yourself.

Let’s start with genetics. It is very easy to quickly evolve in a particular direction if a variety of relevant traits already exist in a population. For example, humans already vary in height, so if you wanted to, say, make everyone on Earth shorter, you would just have to stop all of the tall people from reproducing. The short people would create the next generation, and it would be short.

But getting the adult human height below 3″ tall requires not just existing, normal human height variation, but exploiting random mutations. These are rare and the people who have them normally incur huge reductions in fitness, as they often have problems with bone growth, intelligence, and giving birth.

Most random mutations simply result in an organism’s death. Very few are useful, and those that are have to beat out all of the other local genetic combinations to actually stick around.

Suppose you happen to be born with a very lucky genetic trait: a rare mutation that lets you survive more easily in an arctic environment.

But you were born in Sudan.

Your genetic trait could be really useful if you could somehow give it away to someone in Siberia, but no, you are stuck in Sudan and you are really hot all of the time and then you die of heatstroke.

With the evolution of complex thought, humans (near alone among animals) developed the ability to go beyond mere genetic abilities, instincts, and impulses, and impart stores of knowledge to the next generation. Humanity has been accumulating mitochondrial memes for millions of years, ever since the first human showed another human how to wield fire and create stone tools. (Note: the use of fire and stone tools predates the emergence of homo Sapiens by a long while, but not the Homo genus.)

But mitochondrial memes, to get passed on, need to offer some immediate benefit to their holders. Humans are smart enough–and the utility of information unpredictable enough–that we can hold some not obviously useful or absurd ideas, but the bulk of our efforts have to go toward information that helps us survive.

(By definition, mitochondrial memes aren’t written down; they have to be remembered.)

If an idea doesn’t offer some benefit to its holder, it is likely to be quickly forgotten–even if it could be very useful to someone else.

Suppose one day you happen to have a brilliant new idea for how to keep warm in a very cold environment–but you live in Sudan. If you can’t tell your idea to anyone who lives somewhere cold, your idea will never be useful. It will die with you.

But introduce writing, and ideas of no use to their holder can be recorded and transmitted to people who can use them. For example, in 1502, Leonardo da Vinci designed a 720-foot (220 m) bridge for Ottoman Sultan Beyazid II of Constantinople. The sultan never built Leonardo’s bridge, but in 2001, a bridge based on his design was finally built in Norway. Leonardo’s ideas for flying machines, while also not immediately useful, inspired generations of future engineers.

Viral memes don’t have to be immediately useful to stick around. They can be written down, tucked into a book, and picked up again a hundred years later and a thousand miles away by someone who can use them. A person living in Sudan can invent a better way to stay warm, write it down, and send it to someone in Siberia–and someone in Siberia can invent a better way to stay cool, write it down, and send it back.

Original Morse Telegraph machine, circa 1835

Many modern scientific and technological advances are based on the contributions of not one or two or ten inventors, but thousands, each contributing their unpredictable part to the overall whole. Electricity, for example, was a mere curiosity when Thales of Miletus wrote about effects of rubbing amber to produce static electricity (the word “electricity” is actually derived from the Greek for “amber”;) between 1600 and 1800, scientists began studying electricity in a more systematic way, but it still wasn’t useful. It was only with the invention of the telegraph from many different electrical parts and systems, (first working model, 1816; first telegram sent in the US, 1838;) that electricity became useful. With the invention of electric lights and the electrical grids necessary to power them (1870s and 80s,) electricity moved into people’s homes.

The advent of meme viruses has thus given humanity two gifts: 1. People can use technology like books and the internet to store more information than we can naturally, like external hard-drives for our brains; and 2. we can preserve and transmit ideas that aren’t immediately useful to ourselves to people who can use them.

Dangerous Memes

Homo sapiens is about 200-300,000 years old, depending on exactly where you draw the line between us and our immediate ancestors. Printing (and eventually mass literacy) only got going about 550 years ago, with the development of the Gutenberg press. TV, radio, movies, and the internet only became widespread within the past century, and internet in the past 25 years.

In other words, for 99.99% of human history, “mass media” didn’t exist.

How did illiterate peasants learn about the world, if not from books, TV, or Youtube videos? Naturally, from each other: parents passed knowledge to children; tribal elders taught their wisdom to other members of their tribes; teenagers were apprenticed to masters who already knew a trade, etc.

A hundred years ago, if you wanted to know how to build a wagon, raise a barn, or plant corn, you generally had to find someone who knew how to do so and ask them. Today, you ask the internet.

Getting all of your information from people you know is limiting, but it has two advantages: you can easily judge whether the source of your information is reliable, (you’re not going to take farming advice from your Uncle Bob whose crops always fail,) and most of the people giving you information have your best interests at heart.

Forgoing reproduction tends to be a pretty big hit to one’s reproductive success (source)

The internet’s strength is that it lets us talk to people from outside our own communities; it’s weakness is that this makes it much easier for people (say, Nigerian princes with extra bank accounts,) to get away with lying. They also have no particular interest one way or another in your survival–unlike your parents.

In a mitochondrial memetic environment (that is, an environment where you get most of your information from relatives,) memes that could kill you tend to get selected against: parents who encourage their children to eat poison tend not to have grandchildren. From an evolutionary perspective, deadly memes are selected against in a mitochondrial environment; memes will evolve to support your survival.

By contrast, in a viral meme environment, (that is, an environment where ideas can easily pass from person to person without anyone having to give birth,) your personal survival is not all that important to the idea’s success.

Total Fertility Rate by Country–odd that the Guardian’s anti-fertility message wasn’t aimed at the people with the highest fertility

So one of the risks of viral memes is getting scammed: memetically, infected by an idea that sounds good but actually benefits someone else at your expense.

In the mitochondrial environment, we expect people to be basically cautious; in the viral, less cautious.

Suppose we have two different groups (Group A and Group B) interacting. 25% of Group B is violent criminals, versus 5% of Group A. Folks in group A would quite logically want to avoid Group B. But 75% of Group B is not violent criminals, and would logically not want to be lumped in with criminals. (For that matter, neither do the 25% who are.)

If you think my numbers are unrealistic, consider that the NAACP says that African Americans are incarcerated at 5x the rates of whites,  and if you look at specific subpops–say, black men between the ages of 15 and 35 vs white women over the age of 40–the difference in incarceration rates is even larger (HuffPo claims that 33% of black men will go to prison sometime in their lifetimes.)

In an ideal world, we could easily sort out violent criminals from the rest of the population, allowing the innocent people to freely associate. In the real world, we have to make judgment calls. Lean a bit toward the side of caution, and you exclude more criminals, but also more innocents; lean the opposite direction and innocent people have an easier time finding jobs and houses, but more people get killed by criminals.

Let’s put it less abstractly: suppose you are walking down a dimly-lit street at night and see a suspicious looking person coming toward you. It costs you almost nothing to cross the street to avoid them, while not crossing the street could cost you your life. The person you avoided, if they are innocent, incurs only the expense of potentially having their feelings hurt; if they are a criminal, they have lost a victim.

Companies also want to avoid criminals, which makes it hard for ex-cons to get jobs (which is an issue if we want folks who are no longer in prison to have an opportunity to earn an honest living besides going on welfare.) Unfortunately, efforts to improve employment chances for ex-cons by preventing employers from inquiring directly about criminal history have resulted in employers using rougher heuristics to exclude felons, like simply not hiring young African American males. Since most companies have far more qualified job applicants than available jobs, the cost to them of excluding young African American males is fairly low–while the cost to African Americans is fairly high.

One of the interesting things about the past 200 years is the West’s historically unprecedented shift from racial apartheid/segregation and actual race-based slavery to full legal (if not always de facto) racial integration.

One of the causes of this shift was doubtless the transition from traditional production modes like farming and horticulture to the modern, industrial economy. Subsistence farming didn’t require a whole lot of employees. Medieval peasants didn’t change occupations very often: most folks ended up working in the same professions as their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents (usually farming,) probably even on the same estate.

It was only with industrialization that people and their professions began uncoupling; a person could now hold multiple different jobs, in different fields, over the span of years.

Of course, there were beginnings of this before the 1800s–just as people read books before the 1800s–but accelerating technological development accelerated the trends.

But while capitalists want to hire the best possible workers for the lowest possible wages, this doesn’t get us all the way to the complete change we’ve witnessed in racial mores. After all, companies don’t want to hire criminals, either, and any population that produces a lot of criminals tends not to produce a whole lot of really competent workers.

However, the rise of mass communication has allowed us to listen to and empathize with far more people than ever before. When Martin Luther King marched on Washington and asked to be judged by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin, his request only reached national audiences because of modern media, because we now live in a society of meme viruses. And it worked: integration happened.

Also, crime went up dramatically:

While we’re at it:

Integration triggered a massive increase in crime, which only stopped because… well, we’re not sure, but a corresponding massive increase in the incarceration rate (and sentences) has probably stopped a lot of criminals from committing additional crimes.

Most of these homicides were black on black, but plenty of the victims were white, even as they sold their devalued homes and fled the violence. (Housing integration appears to have struck America’s “ethnic” neighborhoods of Italians, Irish, and Jews particularly hard, destroying coherent communities and, I assume, voting blocks.)

From the white perspective, integration was tremendously costly: people died. Segregation might not be fair, it might kill black people, but it certainly prevented the murder of whites. But segregation, as discussed, does have some costs for whites: you are more limited in all of your transactions, both economic and personal. You can’t sell your house to just anyone you want. Can’t hire anyone you want. Can’t fall in love with anyone you want.

But obviously segregation is far more harmful to African Americans.

Despite all of the trouble integration has caused for whites, the majority claim to believe in it–even though their feet tell a different story. This at least superficial change in attitudes, I believe, was triggered by the nature of the viral memetic environment.

Within the mitochondrial meme environment, you listen to people who care about your survival and they pass on ideas intended to help you survive. They don’t typically pass on ideas that sacrifice your survival for the sake of others, at least not for long. Your parents will tell you that if you see someone suspicious, you should cross the street and get away.

In the viral environment, you interact far more with people who have their own interests in mind, not yours, and these folks would be perfectly happy for you to sacrifice your survival for their sake. The good folks at Penn State would like you to know that locking your car door when a black person passes by is a “microaggression:”

Former President Obama once said in his speech that he was followed when he was shopping in a store, heard the doors of cars locked as he was walking by, and a woman showed extremely nervousness as he got on an elevator with him (Obama, 2013). Those are examples of nonverbal microaggressions. It is disturbing to learn that those behaviors are often automatic that express “put-downs” of individuals in marginalized groups (Pierce et al., 1977). What if Obama were White, would he receive those unfair treatments?

(If Obama were white, like Hillary Clinton, he probably wouldn’t have been elected president.)

For some reason, black people shoplifting, carjacking, or purse-snatching are never described as “microaggressions;” a black person whose feelings are hurt has been microaggressed, but a white person afraid of being robbed or murdered has not been.

This post was actually inspired by an intra-leftist debate:

Shortly after the highly successful African-star-studded movie Black Panther debuted, certain folks, like Faisal Kutty, started complaining that the film is “Islamophobic” because of a scene where girls are rescued from a Boko Haram-like organization.

Never mind that Boko Haram is a real organization, that it actually kidnaps girls, that it has killed more people than ISIS and those people it murders are Africans. Even other Black African Muslims think Boko Haram is shit. (Though obviously BH has its supporters.)

Here we have two different groups of people with different interests: one, Muslims with no particular ties to Africa who don’t want people to associate them with Boko Haram, and two, Black Muslims who don’t want to get killed by folks like Boko Haram.

It is exceedingly disingenuous for folks like Faisal Kutty to criticize as immoral an accurate portrayal of a group that is actually slaughtering thousands of people just because he might accidentally be harmed by association. More attention on Boko Haram could save lives; less attention could result in more deaths–the dead just wouldn’t be Kutty, who is safe in Canada.

Without mass media, I don’t think this kind of appeal works: survival memes dominate and people take danger very seriously. “Some stranger in Canada might be inconvenienced over this” loses to “these people slaughter children.” With mass media, the viral environment allows appeals to set aside your own self-interest and ignore danger in favor of “fairness” and “equality” for everyone in the conversation to flourish.

So far this post has focused primarily on the interests of innocent people, but criminals have interests, too–and criminals would like you to make it easier for them to commit crime.

Steve Sailer highlighted the case of social justice activist and multiple award winner Simon Mol (quotes are from Mol’s Wikipedia article):

Simon Mol (6 November 1973 in Buea, Cameroon – 10 October 2008) was the pen name of Simon Moleke Njie, a Cameroon-born journalist, writer and anti-racist political activist. In 1999 he sought political asylum in Poland; it was granted in 2000, and he moved to Warsaw, where he became a well-known anti-racist campaigner. …

In 2005 he organized a conference with Black ambassadors in Poland to protest the claims in an article in Wiedza i Życie by Adam Leszczyński about AIDS problems in Africa, which quoted research stating that a majority of African women were unable to persuade their HIV positive husbands to wear condoms, and so later got caught HIV themselves. Mol accused Leszczyński of prejudice because of this publication.

Honorary member of the British International Pen Club Centre.

In 2006 Mol received the prestigious award “Oxfam Novib/PEN Award for Freedom of Expression”.

In February 2006, further to his partner’s request for him to take an HIV test, Mol declined and published a post on his blog explaining why not:

Character assassination isn’t a new phenomenon. However, it appears here the game respects no rules. It wouldn’t be superfluous to state that there is an ingrained, harsh and disturbing dislike for Africans here. The accusation of being HIV positive is the latest weapon that as an African your enemy can raise against you. This ideologically inspired weapon, is strengthened by the day with disturbing literature about Africa from supposed-experts on Africa, some of whom openly boast of traveling across Africa in two weeks and return home to write volumes. What some of these hastily compiled volumes have succeeded in breeding, is a social and psychological conviction that every African walking the street here is supposedly HIV positive, and woe betide anyone who dares to unravel the myth being put in place.

On the 3rd of January 2007 Mol was taken into custody by the Polish police and charged with infecting his sexual partners with HIV. …

According to the Rzeczpospolita newspaper, he was diagnosed with HIV back in 1999 while living in a refugee shelter, but Polish law does not force an HIV carrier to reveal his or her disease status.

According to the police inspector who was investigating his case, a witness stated that Mol refused to wear condoms during sex. An anonymous witness in one case said that he accused a girl who demanded he should wear them that she was racist because as he was Black she thought he must be infected with HIV. After sexual intercourse he used to say to his female partners that his sperm was sacred.

In an unusual move, his photo with an epidemiological warning, was ordered to be publicly displayed by the then Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro. MediaWatch, a body that monitors alleged racism, quickly denounced this decision, asserting that it was a breach of ethics with racist implications, as the picture had been published before any court verdict. They saw it as evidence of institutional racism in Poland, also calling for international condemnation. …

After police published Mol’s photo and an alert before the start of court proceedings, Warsaw HIV testing centers were “invaded by young women”. A few said that they knew Mol. Some of the HIV tests have been positive. According to the police inspector who had been monitoring the tests and the case: “Some women very quickly started to suffer drug-resistant tonsillitis and fungal infections. They looked wasted, some lost as many as 15 kilograms and were deeply traumatized, impeding us taking the witness statements. 18 additional likely victims have been identified thereby”. Genetic tests of the virus from the infectees and Simon proved that it was specific to Cameroon.

In other words, Simon Mol was a sociopath who used the accusation of “racism” to murder dozens of women.

Criminals–of any race–are not nice people. They will absolutely use anything at their disposal to make it easier to commit crime. In the past, they posed as police officers, asked for help finding their lost dog, or just rang your doorbell. Today they can get intersectional feminists and international human rights organizations to argue on their behalf that locking your door or insisting on condoms is the real crime.

Critical criminology, folks.

The Progressive Mind Virus Spreads to… India?

As ANI (Asian News International) reports on Twitter (h/t Rohit):

For those of you reading this in the future, after the 15 minutes of manufactured furor have subsided, #MarcyForOurLives is an anti-guns/pro-gun control movement in the US. Gun laws in India are notably much stricter than gun laws in the US, and yet–

The thing that looks like a mushroom is the internal part of a uterus; you can see the rest of the drawing faintly around it. As noted, this is completely backwards from the reality in India, where it is nearly impossible to buy a gun but abortions are extremely common and completely legal. So where did the marchers in Mumbai get this sign?

Well, it’s a meme, found on Twitter, instagram, t-shirts, and of course signs at pussyhat rallies in the US. It’s not even true in the US, but at least it kind of makes sense given our frequent debates over both guns and abortions. Certainly there are some people in the US who think abortions should be completely illegal. India, by contrast, is a nation where slowing the growth rate to prevent famine is a high priority and abortions are quite legal.

I am reminded of that time Michelle Obama tweeted #BringBackOurGirls in support of Nigerians kidnapped by Boko Haram:

This is the signature of a mind-virus: it makes you repeat things that make no sense in context. It makes you spread the virus even though it does not make logical sense for you, personally, to spread it. Michelle Obama is married to a man who controlled, at the time, the world’s largest military, including an enormous stockpile of nuclear weapons, and yet she was tweeting ineffective hashtags to be part of the #movement.

Likewise, the state of gun (and abortion) laws in India is nothing like their state in the US, yet Indians are getting sucked into spreading our viral memes.

Horizontal meme transfer–like social media–promotes the spread of memetic viruses.

Further thoughts on the end of America

I do feel, quite deeply, that America is changing rapidly; a certain old essence is disappearing, even faster than when I was young.

In such cases I think of my father, an old-stock American, Vietnam vet, lover of God, Guns, and Glory–basically all your red state stereotypes.

While chatting with parents down at the local playground, one of the moms claimed to “love” her HOA. Why? I inquired, distressed, because all mine does is wreck the landscaping and eliminate parking. After a moment’s thought, she responded that the HOA prevents people from leaving their trash cans out overnight and stops them from painting their houses strange colors.

Goodnight! Who joins an organization just to meddle with their neighbors?

Of course there are corners of America where people still mind their own business, but we are increasingly squashed into corporate-molded cities where neighbors spend more time worrying about their property values than interacting.

Anyway, I tracked down the book I referenced in the previous post: Childcraft, Volume 11: Music for the Family, with copyrights from 1923-1954 (presumably the copy I hold hails from ’54, as its photos are that era, but the text may be somewhat older.)

Most of the book is children’s songs, but there is a section at the end with biographies of famous composers: Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert,Chopin, Verdi, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Humperdinck, MacDowell, Debussy, Sousa, and Gershwin. Here are a few excerpts:

Handel:

“No!” said Father Handel sternly. My boy shall never be a musician!”

In that day in Germany, musicians were often treated like servants. Father Handel wanted his son to be an important man, not a servant. It was splendid to be a barber-surgeon–like Father Handel–and be called to the castle to trim the duke’s mustache or treat his indigestion. It was even more splendid to be a lawyer, and earn rich fees for giving advice to a prince or a king. But little George Frederick Handel wanted only to be a musician.

Haydn:

In the same year that George Washington was born, an Austrian peasant family named Haydn celebrated the birth of a fair-haired baby boy. They named him Joseph.

Joseph’s father made wheels for wagons and coaches. His mother was a cook for noble families. both parents loved music. In the evenings, by candlelight, the family often sang songs of the people, or folk melodies…

At one time Haydn played a joke on the powerful Prince Esterhazy, who had hired him as music director. The prince kept his musicians at a palace in the country. He seldom allowed them a vacation. Many of the musicians longed to visit their families. Haydn wished that he might  help them. But he did not see what he could do. He did not dare speak directly to the prince about it.

One day Haydn announced that he had written a new symphony. Prince Esterhazy and his court gathered in the great hall of the palace to listen. As the orchestra began the final movement, one by one the players blew out the candle on their music stands and left the hall. Finally only two violinists were playing. They they too departed, and only the director remained.

Haydn turned and bowed to the prince. “Your Grace,” he said, “I call this the Farewell Symphony.”

The prince looked perplexed, then began to smile at Haydn’s musical prank.

“I can take a hint from old Haydn,” he said “The musicians may start their vacation tomorrow.” As you may imagine, all the musicians were grateful to their beloved “Papa Haydn.”

Mozart:

By the time Wolfgang was twelve years old, he had played in many great cities of Europe. He was the favorite of queens and princesses. Princes and kings gave him money and jewels. Many musicians envied the young Mozart, because it was then the custom to teat musicians like servants.

It would seem that Mozart’s early life was just one gay adventure. But the boy grew very wise about kings and queens, princes and princesses. He learned that kings and noblemen were just like ordinary people. Some were wise and just. Others were stupid and cruel. Some princesses were gracious and kind. But others had very bad manners, and sometimes young Mozart told them so. He knew that many ordinary persons had better manners and were better people than some of the nobility.

Mozart began to believe that bad and stupid kings had no right to tell people what to do. These were dangerous thoughts, for king often punished person who had ideas about freedom. Mozart put hi ideas into music, rather than speech.

When Mozart grew to manhood, he wrote operas which poked fun at king and noblemen. One of these operas is the Marriage of Figaro, which had many lilting melodies. Another is Don Giovanni, in which we hear the lovely “Minuet.”

Beethoven:

The music Beethoven wrote shows that he loved people, because it is written for all the people, and not merely for king and princes. But Beethoven also felt that cruel people had bought much evil into the world. he was happiest when he could be outdoors, in rain or sunshine, and listen to the songs of Nature.

Chopin:

The Patriot Composer of Poland

Father Chopin began a merry Polish folk tune on his flute. Little Frederic sat still and listened. Soon a tear rolled own his cheek and dropped on his blouse.

The music of the flute rose higher. It danced like a happy peasant girl. It trilled and shistled like the song of a bird. Little Frederic’s chin began to tremble. He opened his mouth wide and began to cry.

Father and Mother Chopin loved Frederic deeply. But they also loved music, and they were sad because their little son seemed to dislike it so. …

Upstairs, the boy who should have been asleep lay awake listening. He squeezed his pillow tight against his eyes to keep the tears back. How could they ay he he hated music! His tears were not tears of pain, but of joy. Frederic loved music so much that the sound of it made him weep. But he was so young that he could not find the words to tell his parents how he felt. …

Young Chopin began to compose his own music almost as soon as he could play the piano. His compositions were influenced by the kinds of music his parents loved best. His father had come from France, and often played the music of that country on his flute. Frederick liked the French music, but most of all he loved the  songs his mother sang–songs of his native Poland. It is the Polish music he wrote that is most popular.

Frederic’s mother told him that Poland had once been a proud and free country. Then neighbor nations had taken away its freedom. The Polish people remembered the days when their country was free, and sang songs about the land they loved. Frederic used these national songs in his compositions for the piano. …

Chopin’s love for his country speaks through his music, like a beautiful language which the people of all countries can understand. Chopin’s stirring music still has the power to make strong men and women of any country weep, just as a little boy wept over a Polish folk tune many years ago.

Etc.

Now let’s take a look at Mathematicians are People, Too: Stories from the lives of the great mathematicians (copyright 1990). (I would like to note that this is not a bad book; I am just trying to highlight the change in political tone/emphasis over the decades.) It covers Thales, Pythagoras, Archimedes, Hypatia, Napier, Galileo, Pascal, Newton, Eurler, Lagrange, Sophie Germain, Gaus, Galois, Amalie (Emmy) Noether, and Ramanujan.

There is a sequel which I have not yet read, published in 1995, which covers Euclid, Omar Khayyam, Fibonacci, Descartes, Fermat, Cardano, Maria Agnesi, Benjamin Banneker, Mary Somerville, Ada Lovelace, Babbage, Sonya Kovalesky, Neils Abel, George Polya, and Einstein.

Hypatia:

But Hypatia was not only a well-known scientist and mathematician’ she also became a highly respected philosopher. Her father had taught her to be open-minded about ideas. Like many Greeks, he believed people should keep questioning rather than settle on one version of truth as final. He introduced her to a variety of religions, and she learned to value the good in each. Because of this, he taught her students to ask lots of question, even about ideas that government or religious leaders said they should not question. Eventually, this caused trouble for Hypatia.

Hypatia got caught in the middle of a struggle between two leaders in Alexandria. Orestes, prefect or governor of Alexandria, was Hypatia’s friend. They enjoyed talking together and often wrote letters about the latest ideas. Cyril was the archbishop of Alexandria, the head of the Christian church in that city. He was suspicious of anyone who did not accept his religious views. Conflict developed between the two men and their followers, and Cyril became convinced that Hypatia was behind it. …

An angry mob of religious fanatics, fired up by false rumors of Hypatia’s teaching, kidnapped her one day as she rode through town on her chariot. They dragged her through the streets to the cathedral, where she was brutally murdered and he bones burned. Her death marks the end of the great age of Greek Mathematics. …

Although Hypatia made many important contributions to mathematics and science, few women have adopted her interests–until recently. Some historians believe that Hypatia’s horrible death may have discouraged other women from becoming mathematician. Still others believe that Hypatia’s life–not her death–is the perfect symbol of what women or men can achieve when they work hard and stand up for what they believe is right.

(A lot of mathematicians in this book, including Pythagoras, Hypatia, and Archimedes, were murdered. Apparently mathematician is a much more dangerous profession than composer.)

Lagrange:

Lagrange’s influence was beginning to be felt throughout the scientific communities of Europe. King Frederick of Prussia had formed a prestigious college of mathematics in Berlin. Frederick sent this rather impressive invitation to Lagrange: “The greatest king in Europe must have the greatest mathematician in Europe in his court!”

Clearly, Frederick was not as modest as Lagrange, but he was an avid supporter of science and mathematics. …

Lagrange was quick to praise persons who had encouraged or influenced him. He applauded when Napoleon ordered a tribute to Lagrange’s father, still living in Italy. He acknowledged the greatness of Euler, He mourned with the chemist Lavoisier was sentenced to death by guillotine. And just as he recognized those who had affirmed him, he was quick to encourage younger mathematicians.

Once, while teaching at the Ecole Polytechnique, he received and impressive paper from Monsier LeBlanc. … After some research, he discovered that the mystery student was really a young woman named Sophie Germain. Only men were allowed at the Ecole, so Sophie had borrowed lecture notes from friends and asked them to smuggle her paper in among theirs. Lagrange went immediately to her home and made her feel like a true mathematician, helping launch her important career.

Sophie Germain:

When Sophie was very young, her parents had welcomed her interest. They allowed her to use her father’s library whenever she wished. But soon they decided that she was studying too much. They agreed with the popular notion that “brainwork” was not healthy–maybe even dangerous–for girls. They told Sophie that he could not study mathematics anymore.

But Sophie would not give up. Night after night she crawled out of bed and studied after everyone else had gone to sleep. …

“Oh, Father, I’m so sorry, but I just can’t stop,” Sophie cried. “These problems are so fascinating! When I work on them I feel like I’m really alive.”

“But, Sophie,” her mother said softly, “remember, you’re a girl. It isn’t good for you to fill your mind with numbers.” …

With that her parents gave up. Sophie was allowed to study to her heart’s content. Fortunately, her father had an excellent library. As wealthy citizens, the Germain family knew many educated people in Paris and throughout France.

When Sophie was young, however, traveling and visiting were restricted by the political turmoil in France. The French Revolution began in 1789 when she was thirteen, and Paris was an unstable and dangerous city… Sophie’s parents shielded her from the fighting and conflict. She eagerly filled her time reading and learning. …

In 1816 mathematicians and scientists around the world heard about Sophie Germain. In that year she won the grand prize from the French Academy for her work on the law of vibrating elastic surfaces…

Sophie Germain enjoyed only a brief moment of recognition for a lifetime of dedicated study. The barriers to women in mathematics certainly hampered Germain’s development–but they did not prevent her from following her quest.

Galois:

Galois could have coped with normal disappointments, but so many setbacks took their toll on him. Bitterness filled him He began to distrust all teachers and all institutions. He tried starting his own school, but no one enrolled. Then, because he wanted to fight injustice, he got involved in politics. He joined the Republicans, a forbidden radical group. They spoke out for justice, especially for the poor, and for freedom of the press. They wanted a better standard of living for the common people, instead of for the wealthy few.

Galois ended up in prison for his political activities, then got killed in a duel at the age of 20.

My goal isn’t to dissect the truth of these stories (often children’s biographies are at least a bit fictionalized), but to examine what the authors chose to highlight. We are often don’t even notice the political beliefs of our own age (“Of course they did it that way. It’s only natural,”) but can easily see the politics of another age.

The cover of the Childcraft book on music features two children holding a book (on the book’s cover are two more children, holding a book…) Mathematicians are People, Too, features Amalie Noether happily studying math while her flustered mother (dressed like a maid) looks on in consternation. Volume two has African American Benjamin Banneker on its cover. (Silly me, I would have put Euclid and Newton on the covers and probably not had as many sales.)

It took a bit of digging to find the full list of mathematicians in Volume 2–the book’s blurb on Amazon only lists Omar Khayyam, Albert Einstein*, Ada Lovelace, and “others.” Clearly, during the production of Volume 1, the authors were thinking about how to emphasize women in mathematics; by Volume 2, they wanted to emphasize diversity. The publishers didn’t even think it worthwhile to list Euclid!

*I love Einstein as much as the next guy, but he’s not a mathematician.

To be fair, there are probably more people looking for biographies of Ada Lovelace or Einstein than of Euclid, though personally I spend a fair amount of time thinking “When do we start Euclid? Is there a children’s version of his Elements?” and not much time thinking, “When do we start Ada Lovelace?”

So one of the major difference between these two works lies not in the explicit phrasing of the stories, but in the frame of the particular people they chose to highlight. Why Benjamin Banneker? Unlike Omar Khayyam, he didn’t contribute very much to mathematics, and we have not exhausted our list of great mathematicians such that we need to go searching for obscure ones. Surely Turing, Erdos, von Neuman, al-Khwarizmi, or Aryabhata contributed far more–but perhaps that doesn’t matter, as the book’s target market can hardly understand advanced math in the first place. Banneker was chosen because the authors believe that it is important to have an African American character in order to appeal to African American readers.

The conclusion of Hypatia’s story is more explicitly political–Hypatia wasn’t killed because she was a female mathematician and her story certainly hasn’t discouraged women from doing math–if the authors thought it did, they wouldn’t have put it in the book!

Do the political messages in children’s books matter? Do they create culture, or are they created by culture? Chickens and eggs. Either way, culture has changed. Politics have changed. People have changed. Technology has changed.

1950s civics class didn’t happen in a vacuum–and I don’t think the political culture that created it is coming back.

“Cultural Collapse”

Tablet recently had an interesting essay on the theme of “why did Trump win?”

The material-grievances theory and the cultural-resentments theory can fit together because, in both cases, they tell us that people voted for Trump out of a perceived self-interest, which was to improve their faltering economic and material conditions, or else to affirm their cultural standing vis-à-vis the non-whites and the bicoastal elites. Their votes were, from this standpoint, rationally cast. … which ultimately would suggest that 2016’s election was at least a semi-normal event, even if Trump has his oddities. But here is my reservation.

I do not think the election was normal. I think it was the strangest election in American history in at least one major particular, which has to do with the qualifications and demeanor of the winning candidate. American presidents over the centuries have always cultivated, after all, a style, which has been pretty much the style of George Washington, sartorially updated. … Now, it is possible that, over the centuries, appearances and reality have, on occasion, parted ways, and one or another president, in the privacy of his personal quarters, or in whispered instructions to his henchmen, has been, in fact, a lout, a demagogue, a thug, and a stinking cesspool of corruption. And yet, until just now, nobody running for the presidency, none of the serious candidates, would have wanted to look like that, and this was for a simple reason. The American project requires a rigorously republican culture, without which a democratic society cannot exist—a culture of honesty, logic, science, and open-minded debate, which requires, in turn, tolerance and mutual respect. Democracy demands decorum. And since the president is supposed to be democracy’s leader, the candidates for the office have always done their best to, at least, put on a good act.

The author (Paul Berman) then proposes Theory III: Broad Cultural Collapse:

 A Theory 3 ought to emphasize still another non-economic and non-industrial factor, apart from marriage, family structure, theology, bad doctors, evil pharmaceutical companies, and racist ideology. This is a broad cultural collapse. It is a collapse, at minimum, of civic knowledge—a collapse in the ability to identify political reality, a collapse in the ability to recall the nature of democracy and the American ideal. An intellectual collapse, ultimately. And the sign of this collapse is an inability to recognize that Donald Trump has the look of a foreign object within the American presidential tradition.

Berman is insightful until he blames cultural collapse on the educational system (those dastardly teachers just decided not to teach about George Washington, I guess.)

We can’t blame education. Very few people had many years of formal education of any sort back in 1776 or 1810–even in 1900, far fewer people completed highschool than do today. The idea that highschool civics class was more effectively teaching future voters what to look for in a president in 1815 than today therefore seems unlikely.

If anything, in my (admittedly limited, parental) interactions with the local schools, education seem to lag national sentiment. For example, the local schools still cover Columbus Day in a pro-Columbus manner (and I don’t even live in a particularly conservative area) and have special Veterans’ Day events. School curricula are, I think, fairly influenced by the desires of the Texas schools, because Texas is a big state that buys a lot of textbooks.

I know plenty of Boomers who voted for Trump, so if we’re looking at a change in school curricula, we’re looking at a shift that happened half a century ago (or more,) but only recently manifested.

That said, I definitely feel something coursing through society that I could call “Cultural Collapse.” I just don’t think the schools are to blame.

Yesterday I happened across children’s book about famous musicians from the 1920s. Interwoven with the biographies of Beethoven and Mozart were political comments about kings and queens, European social structure and how these musicians of course saw through all of this royalty business and wanted to make music for the common people. It was an articulated ideology of democracy.

Sure, people today still think democracy is important, but the framing (and phrasing) is different. The book we recently read of mathematicians’ biographies didn’t stop to tell us how highly the mathematicians thought of the idea of common people voting (rather, when it bothered with ideology, it focused on increasing representation of women in mathematics and emphasizing the historical obstacles they faced.)

Meanwhile, as the NY Times reports, the percent of Americans who think living in a Democracy is important is declining:

According to the Mounk-Foa early-warning system, signs of democratic deconsolidation in the United States and many other liberal democracies are now similar to those in Venezuela before its crisis.

Across numerous countries, including Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States, the percentage of people who say it is “essential” to live in a democracy has plummeted, and it is especially low among younger generations. …

Support for autocratic alternatives is rising, too. Drawing on data from the European and World Values Surveys, the researchers found that the share of Americans who say that army rule would be a “good” or “very good” thing had risen to 1 in 6 in 2014, compared with 1 in 16 in 1995.

That trend is particularly strong among young people. For instance, in a previously published paper, the researchers calculated that 43 percent of older Americans believed it was illegitimate for the military to take over if the government were incompetent or failing to do its job, but only 19 percent of millennials agreed. The same generational divide showed up in Europe, where 53 percent of older people thought a military takeover would be illegitimate, while only 36 percent of millennials agreed.

Note, though, that this is not a local phenomenon–any explanation that explains why support for democracy is down in the US needs to also explain why it’s down in Sweden, Australia, Britain, and the Netherlands (and maybe why it wasn’t so popular there in the first place.)

Here are a few different theories besides failing schools:

  1. Less common culture, due to integration and immigration
  2. More international culture, due to the internet, TV, and similar technologies
  3. Disney

Put yourself in your grandfather or great-grandfather’s shoes, growing up in the 1910s or 20s. Cars were not yet common; chances were if he wanted to go somewhere, he walked or rode a horse. Telephones and radios were still rare. TV barely existed.

If you wanted to talk to someone, you walked over to them and talked. If you wanted to talk to someone from another town, either you or they had to travel, often by horse or wagon. For long-distance news, you had newspapers and a few telegraph wires.

News traveled slowly. People traveled slowly (most people didn’t ride trains regularly.) Most of the people you talked to were folks who lived nearby, in your own community. Everyone not from your community was some kind of outsider.

There’s a story from Albion’s Seed:

During World War II, for example, three German submariners escaped from Camp Crossville, Tennessee. Their flight took them to an Appalachian cabin, where they stopped for a drink of water. The mountain granny told them to git.” When they ignored her, she promptly shot them dead. The sheriff came, and scolded her for shooting helpless prisoners. Granny burst into tears, and said that she wold not have done it if she had known the were Germans. The exasperated sheriff asked her what in “tarnation” she thought she was shooting at. “Why,” she replied, “I thought they was Yankees!”

And then your grandfather got shipped out to get shot at somewhere in Europe or the Pacific.

Today, technology has completely transformed our lives. When we want to talk to someone or hear their opinion, we can just pick up the phone, visit facebook, or flip on the TV. We have daily commutes that would have taken our ancestors a week to walk. People expect to travel thousands of miles for college and jobs.

The effect is a curious inversion: In a world where you can talk to anyone, why talk to your neighbors? Personally, I spend more time talking to people in Britain than the folks next door, (and I like my neighbors.)

Now, this blog was practically founded on the idea that this technological shift in the way ideas (memes) are transmitted has a profound effect on the kinds of ideas that are transmitted. When ideas must be propagated between relatives and neighbors, these ideas are likely to promote your own material well-being (as you must survive well enough to continue propagating the idea for it to go on existing,) whereas when ideas can be easily transmitted between strangers who don’t even live near each other, the ideas need not promote personal survival–they just need to sound good. (I went into more detail on this idea back in Viruses Want you to Spread Them, Mitochondrial Memes, and The Progressive Virus.)

How do these technological shifts affect how we form communities?

From Bowling Alone:

In a groundbreaking book based on vast data, Putnam shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures– and how we may reconnect.

Putnam warns that our stock of social capital – the very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities.

Putnam draws on evidence including nearly 500,000 interviews over the last quarter century to show that we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. We’re even bowling alone. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues. Putnam shows how changes in work, family structure, age, suburban life, television, computers, women’s roles and other factors have contributed to this decline.

to data on how many people don’t have any friends:

The National Science Foundation (NSF) reported in its General Social Survey (GSS) that unprecedented numbers of Americans are lonely. Published in the American Sociological Review (ASR) and authored by Miller McPhearson, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and Matthew Brashears, sociologists at Duke and the University of Arizona, the study featured 1,500 face-to-face interviews where more than a quarter of the respondents — one in four — said that they have no one with whom they can talk about their personal troubles or triumphs. If family members are not counted, the number doubles to more than half of Americans who have no one outside their immediate family with whom they can share confidences. Sadly, the researchers noted increases in “social isolation” and “a very significant decrease in social connection to close friends and family.”

Rarely has news from an academic paper struck such a responsive nerve with the general public. These dramatic statistics from ASR parallel similar trends reported by the Beverly LaHaye Institute — that over the 40 years from 1960 to 2000 the Census Bureau had expanded its analysis of what had been a minor category.  The Census Bureau categorizes the term “unrelated individuals” to designate someone who does not live in a “family group.” Sadly, we’ve seen the percentage of persons living as “unrelated individuals” almost triple, increasing from 6 to 16 percent of all people during the last 40 years. A huge majority of those classified as “unrelated individuals” (about 70 percent) lived alone.

it seems that interpersonal trust is deteriorating:

Long-run data from the US, where the General Social Survey (GSS) has been gathering information about trust attitudes since 1972, suggests that people trust each other less today than 40 years ago. This decline in interpersonal trust in the US has been coupled with a long-run reduction in public trust in government – according to estimates compiled by the Pew Research Center since 1958, today trust in the government in the US is at historically low levels.

Interestingly:

Interpersonal trust attitudes correlate strongly with religious affiliation and upbringing. Some studies have shown that this strong positive relationship remains after controlling for several survey-respondent characteristics.1 This, in turn, has led researchers to use religion as a proxy for trust, in order to estimate the extent to which economic outcomes depend on trust attitudes. Estimates from these and other studies using an instrumental-variable approach, suggest that trust has a causal impact on economic outcomes.2 This suggests that the remarkable cross-country heterogeneity in trust that we observe today, can explain a significant part of the historical differences in cross-country income levels.

Also:

Measures of trust from attitudinal survey questions remain the most common source of data on trust. Yet academic studies have shown that these measures of trust are generally weak predictors of actual trusting behaviour. Interestingly, however, questions about trusting attitudes do seem to predict trustworthiness. In other words, people who say they trust other people tend to be trustworthy themselves.3

Just look at that horrible trend of migrants being kept out of Europe

Our technological shifts haven’t just affected ideas and conversations–with people able to travel thousands of miles in an afternoon, they’ve also affected the composition of communities. The US in 1920 was almost 90% white and 10% black, (with that black population concentrated in the segregated South). All other races together totaled only a couple percent. Today, the US is <65% white, 13% black, 16% Hispanic, 6% Asian and Native American, and 9% “other” or multi-racial.

Similar changes have happened in Europe, both with the creation of the Free Movement Zone and the discovery that the Mediterranean isn’t that hard to cross, though the composition of the newcomers obviously differs.

Diversity may have its benefits, but one of the things it isn’t is a common culture.

With all of these changes, do I really feel that there is anything particularly special about my local community and its norms over those of my British friends?

What about Disney?

Well, Disney’s most profitable product hasn’t exactly been pro-democracy, though I doubt a few princess movies can actually budge people’s political compasses or vote for Trump (or Hillary.) But what about the general content of children’s stories? It sure seems like there are a lot fewer stories focused on characters from American history than in the days when Davy Crockett was the biggest thing on TV.

Of course this loops back into technological changes, as American TV and movies are enjoyed by an increasingly non-American audience and media content is driven by advertisers’ desire to reach specific audiences (eg, the “rural purge” in TV programming, when popular TV shows aimed at more rural or older audiences were cancelled in favor of programs featuring urban characters, which advertisers believed would appeal to younger viewers with more cash to spend.)

If cultural collapse is happening, it’s not because we lack for civics classes, but because civics classes alone cannot create a civic culture where there is none.

Your Favorite Songs (or Bands)

I don’t want to be one of those people who just gets attached to whatever was on the radio when they were 14 years old (or 18, or whenever) and never learns to like anything else because that’s incredibly stupid.

But I don’t exactly have time to be involved in the club scene and I feel disconnected from whatever is going on in music these days (if anything, I have the distinct feeling that “music these days” is much less of a thing… Maybe because kids these days are more into doing SJW things on tumblr than going out or buying albums.)

I’m hard pressed to claim I have a favorite song, but here are some I enjoy:

The Cruxshadows: Singularities (Youtube doesn’t allow embedding for this one, but it is good so click on it anyway.)

Please share some of your favorites in the comments.

Bonus question: do you think different musical genres appeal to different kinds of people outside of habit or ethnic background? (IE, obviously I’d expect Mexican singers to be more popular in Mexico and Pakistani singers to be popular in Pakistan, but do particular sorts of tunes appeal to different personalities?)