What IS “Social Studies”?

Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees, and sometimes you look at your own discipline and can’t articulate what, exactly, the point of it is.

Yes, I know which topics social studies covers. History, civics, geography, world cultures, reading maps, traffic/pedestrian laws, etc. Socialstudies.org explains, “Within the school program, social studies provides coordinated, systematic study drawing upon such disciplines as anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology, as well as appropriate content from the humanities, mathematics…” etc. (I’m sure you did a lot of archaeology back in elementary school.)

But what is the point of lumping all of these things together? Why put psychology, geography, and law into the same book, and how on earth is that coordinated or systematic?

The points of some other school subjects are obvious. Reading and writing allow you to decode and encode information, a process that has massively expanded the human ability to learn and “remember” things by freeing us from the physical constraints of our personal memories. We can learn from men who lived a thousand years ago or a thousand miles away, and add our bit to the Great Conversation that stretches back to Homer and Moses.

Maths allow us to quantify and measure the world, from “How much do I owe the IRS this year?” to “Will this rocket land on the moon?” (It is also, like fiction, pleasurable for its own sake.) And science and engineering, of course, allow us to make and apply factual observations about the real world–everything from “Rocks accelerate toward the earth at a rate of 9.8m/s^2” to “This bridge is going to collapse.”

But what is social studies? The question bugged me for months, until Napoleon Chagnon–or more accurately, the Yanomamo–provided an answer.

Chagnon is a anthropologist who carefully documented Yanomamo homicide and birth rates, and found that the Yanomamo men who had killed the most people went on to father the most children–providing evidence for natural selection pressures making the Yanomamo more violent and homicidal over time, and busting the “primitive peoples are all lovely egalitarians with no crime or murder” myth.

In an interview I read recently, Chagnon was asked what the Yanomamo made of him, this random white guy who came to live in their village. Why was he there? Chagnon replied that they thought he had come:

“To learn how to be human.”

Sometimes we anthropologists lose the signal in the noise. We think our purpose is to document primitive tribes before they go extinct (and that is part of our purpose.) But the Yanomamo are correct: the real reason we come is to learn how to be human.

All of school has one purpose: to prepare the child for adulthood.

The point of social studies is prepare the child for full, adult membership in their society. You must learn the norms, morals, and laws of your society. The history and geography of your society. You learn not just “How a bill becomes a law” but why a bill becomes a law. If you are religious, your child will also learn about the history and moral teachings of their religion.

Most religions have some kind of ceremony that marks the beginning of religious adulthood. For example, many churches practice the rite of Confirmation, in which teens reaffirm their commitment to Christ and become full members of the congregation. Adult Baptism functions similarly in some denominations.

Judaism has the Bar (and Bat) Mitzvah, whose implications are quite clearly articulated. When a child turns 13 (or in some cases, 12,) they are now expected to be moral actors, responsible for their own behavior. They now make their own decisions about following Jewish law, religious duties, and morality.

But there’s an upside: the teen is also now able to part of a minyan, the 10-person group required for (certain) Jewish prayers, Torah legal study; can marry*; and can testify before a Rabbinic court.

*Local laws still apply.

In short, the ceremony marks the child’s entry into the world of adults and full membership in their society. (Note: obviously 13 yr olds are not treated identically to 33 yr olds; there are other ceremonies that mark the path to maturity.)

Whatever your personal beliefs, the point of Social Studies is to prepare your child for full membership in society.

A society is not merely an aggregation of people who happen to live near each other and observe the same traffic laws (though that is important.) It is a coherent group that believes in itself, has a common culture, language, history, and even literature (often going back thousands of years) about its heroes, philosophy, and values.

To be part of society is to be part of that Great Conversation I referenced above.

But what exactly society is–and who is included in it–is a hotly debated question. Is America the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave, or is it a deeply racist society built on slavery and genocide? As America’s citizens become more diverse, how do these newcomers fit into society? Should we expand the canon of Great Books to reflect our more diverse population? (If you’re not American, just substitute your own country.)

These debates can make finding good Social Studies resources tricky. Young students should not be lied to about their ancestors, but neither should they be subjected to a depressing litany of their ancestors’ sins. You cannot become a functional, contributing member of a society you’ve been taught to hate or be ashamed of.

Too often, I think, students are treated to a lop-sided curriculum in which their ancestors’ good deeds are held up as “universal” accomplishments while their sins are blamed on the group as a whole. The result is a notion that they “have no culture” or that their people have done nothing good for humanity and should be stricken from the Earth.

This is not how healthy societies socialize their children.

If you are using a pre-packaged curriculum, it should be reasonably easy to check whether the makers hold similar values as yourself. If you use a more free-form method (like I do,) it gets harder. For example, YouTube* is a great source for educational videos about all sorts of topics–math, grammar, exoplanets, etc.–so I tried looking up videos on American history. Some were good–and some were bad.

*Use sensible supervision

For example, here’s a video that looked good on the thumbnail, but turned out quite bad:

From the description:

In which John Green teaches you about the Wild, Wild, West, which as it turns out, wasn’t as wild as it seemed in the movies. When we think of the western expansion of the United States in the 19th century, we’re conditioned to imagine the loner. The self-reliant, unattached cowpoke roaming the prairie in search of wandering calves, or the half-addled prospector who has broken from reality thanks to the solitude of his single-minded quest for gold dust. While there may be a grain of truth to these classic Hollywood stereotypes, it isn’t a very big grain of truth. Many of the pioneers who settled the west were family groups. Many were immigrants. Many were major corporations. The big losers in the westward migration were Native Americans, who were killed or moved onto reservations. Not cool, American pioneers.

Let’s work through this line by line. What is the author’s first priority: teaching you something new about the West, or telling you that the things you believe are wrong?

Do you think it would be a good idea to start a math lesson by proclaiming, “Hey kids, I bet you get a lot of math problems wrong”? No. Don’t start a social studies lesson that way, either.

There is no good reason to spend valuable time bringing up incorrect ideas simply because a child might hold them; you should always try to impart correct information and dispel incorrect ideas if the child actually holds them. Otherwise the child is left not with a foundation of solid knowledge, but with what they thought they knew in tatters, with very little to replace it.

Second, is the Western movie genre really so prominent these days that we must combat the pernicious lies of John Wayne and the Lone Ranger? I don’t know about you, but I worry more about my kids picking up myths from Pokemon than from a genre whose popularity dropped off a cliff sometime back in the 80s.

“We are conditioned to think of the loner.” Conditioned. Yes, this man thinks that you have been trained like a dog to salivate at the ringing of a Western-themed bell, the word “loner” popping into your head. The inclusion of random psychology terms where they don’t belong is pseudo-intellectual garbage.

Updated values chart!

The idea of the “loner” cowboy and prospector, even in their mythologized form, is closer to the reality than the picture he draws. On the scale of nations, the US is actually one of the world’s most indivdualist, currently outranked only by Canada, The Netherlands, and Sweden.

Without individualism, you don’t get the notion of private property. In many non-Western societies, land, herds, and other wealth is held collectively by the family or clan, making it nearly impossible for one person (or nuclear family) to cash out his share, buy a wagon, and head West.

I have been reading Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders, an ethnography of rural Appalachia published in 1913. Here is a bit from the introduction:

The Southern highlands themselves are a mysterious realm. When I prepared, eight years ago, for my first sojourn in the Great Smoky Mountains, which form the master chain of the Appalachian system, I could find in no library a guide to that region. The most diligent research failed to discover so much as a magazine article, written within this generation, that described the land and its people. Nay, there was not even a novel or a story that showed intimate local knowledge. Had I been going to Teneriffe or Timbuctu, the libraries would have furnished information a-plenty; but about this housetop of eastern America they were strangely silent; it was terra incognita.

On the map I could see that the Southern Appalachians cover an area much larger than New England, and that they are nearer the center of our population than any other mountains that deserve the name. Why, then, so little known? …

The Alps and the Rockies, the Pyrennees and the Harz are more familiar to the American people, in print and picture, if not by actual visit, than are the Black, the Balsam, and the Great Smoky Mountains. …For, mark you, nine-tenths of the Appalachian population are a sequestered folk. The typical, the average mountain man prefers his native hills and his primitive ancient ways. …

The mountaineers of the South are marked apart from all other folks by dialect, by customs, by character, by self-conscious isolation. So true is this that they call all outsiders “furriners.” It matters not whether your descent be from Puritan or Cavalier, whether you come from Boston or Chicago, Savannah or New Orleans, in the mountains you are a “furriner.” A traveler, puzzled and scandalized at this, asked a native of the Cumberlands what he would call a “Dutchman or a Dago.” The fellow studied a bit and then replied: “Them’s the outlandish.” …

As a foretaste, in the three and a half miles crossing Little House and Big House mountains, one ascends 2,200 feet, descends 1,400, climbs again 1,600, and goes down 2,000 feet on the far side. Beyond lie steep and narrow ridges athwart the way, paralleling each other like waves at sea. Ten distinct mountain chains are scaled and descended in the next forty miles. …

The only roads follow the beds of tortuous and rock-strewn water courses, which may be nearly dry when you start out in the morning, but within an hour may be raging torrents. There are no bridges. One may ford a dozen times in a mile. A spring “tide” will stop all travel, even from neighbor to neighbor, for a day or two at a time. Buggies and carriages are unheard of. In many districts the only means of transportation is with saddlebags on horseback, or with a “tow sack” afoot. If the pedestrian tries a short-cut he will learn what the natives mean when they say: “Goin’ up, you can might’ nigh stand up straight and bite the ground; goin’ down, a man wants hobnails in the seat of his pants.” …

Such difficulties of intercommunication are enough to explain the isolation of the mountaineers. In the more remote regions this loneliness reaches a degree almost unbelievable. Miss Ellen Semple, in a fine monograph published in[Pg 23] the Geographical Journal, of London, in 1901, gave us some examples:

“These Kentucky mountaineers are not only cut off from the outside world, but they are separated from each other. Each is confined to his own locality, and finds his little world within a radius of a few miles from his cabin. There are many men in these mountains who have never seen a town, or even the poor village that constitutes their county-seat…. The women … are almost as rooted as the trees. We met one woman who, during the twelve years of her married life, had lived only ten miles across the mountain from her own home, but had never in this time been back home to visit her father and mother. Another back in Perry county told me she had never been farther from home than Hazard, the county-seat, which is only six miles distant. Another had never been to the post-office, four miles away; and another had never seen the ford of the Rockcastle River, only two miles from her home, and marked, moreover, by the country store of the district.”

When I first went into the Smokies, I stopped one night in a single-room log cabin, and soon had the good people absorbed in my tales of travel beyond the seas. Finally the housewife said to me, with pathetic resignation: “Bushnell’s the furdest ever I’ve been.” Bushnell, at that time, was a hamlet of thirty people, only seven miles from where we sat. When I lived alone on “the Little Fork of Sugar Fork of[Pg 24] Hazel Creek,” there were women in the neighborhood, young and old, who had never seen a railroad, and men who had never boarded a train, although the Murphy branch ran within sixteen miles of our post-office.

And that’s just Appalachia. What sorts of men and women do you think settled the Rockies or headed to the Yukon? Big, gregarious families that valued their connections to society at large?

Then there are the railroads. The video makes a big deal about the railroads being funded by the government, as proof that Americans weren’t “individuals” but part of some grand collectivist society.

Over in reality, societies with more collectivist values, like Pakistan, don’t undertake big national projects. In those societies, your loyalty is to your clan or kin group, and the operative level of social planning and policy is the clan. Big projects that benefit lots of people, not just particular kin networks, tend not to get funded because people do not see themselves as individuals acting within a larger nation that can do big projects that benefit individual people. Big infrastructure projects, especially in the 1800s, were almost entirely limited to societies with highly individualistic values.

Finally we have the genocide of the American Indians. Yes, some were definitely killed; the past is full of sins. But “You’re wrong, your self-image is wrong, and your ancestors were murderers,” is not a good way to introduce the topic.

It’s a pity the video was not good; the animation was well-done. It turns out that people have far more strident opinions about “Was Westward Expansion Just?” than “Is Pi Irrational?”

I also watched the first episode of Netflix’s new series, The Who Was? Show, based on the popular line of children’s biographies. It was an atrocity, and not just because of the fart jokes. The episode paired Benjamin Franklin and Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was depicted respectfully, and as the frequent victim of British racism. Franklin was depicted as a buffoon who hogged the spotlight and tried to steal or take credit for other people’s ideas.

It made me regret buying a biography of Marie Curie last week.

If your children are too young to read first-hand ethnographic accounts of Appalachia and the frontier, what do I recommend instead? Of course there are thousands of quality books out there, and more published every day, but here are a few:

A Child’s Introduction to The World

The Usborne Book of Living Long Ago: Everyday Life Through the Ages

What Your [X] Grader Needs to Know So far I like these, but I have not read them all the way through.

DK: When on Earth?

More important than individual resources, though, is the attitude you bring to the subject.

 

Before we finish, I’d like to note that “America” isn’t actually the society I feel the closest connection to. After all, there are a lot of people here whom I don’t like. The government has a habit of sending loyal citizens to die in stupid wars and denying their medical treatment when they return, and I don’t even know if the country will still exist in meaningful form in 30 years. I think of my society as more “Civilization,” or specifically, “People engaged in the advancement of knowledge.”

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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 Facsimile of Meaning

Most of the activities our ancestors spent the majority of their time on have been automated or largely replaced by technology. Chances are good that the majority of your great-great grandparents were farmers, but few of us today hunt, gather, plant, harvest, or otherwise spend our days physically producing food; few of us will ever build our own houses or even sew our own clothes.

Evolution has (probably) equipped us with neurofeedback loops that reward us for doing the sorts of things we need to do to survive, like hunt down prey or build shelters (even chimps build nests to sleep in,) but these are precisely the activities that we have largely automated and replaced. The closest analogues to these activities are now shopping, cooking, exercising, working on cars, and arts and crafts. (Even warfare has been largely replaced with professional sports fandom.)

Society has invented vicarious thrills: Books, movies, video games, even roller coasters. Our ability to administer vicarious emotions appears to be getting better and better.

And yet, it’s all kind of fake.

Exercising, for example, is in many ways a pointless activity–people literally buy machines so they can run in place. But if you have a job that requires you to be sedentary for most of the day and don’t fancy jogging around your neighborhood after dark, running in place inside your own home may be the best option you have for getting the post-running-down prey endorphin hit that evolution designed you to crave.

A sedentary lifestyle with supermarkets and restaurants deprives us of that successful-hunting endorphin hit and offers us no logical reason to go out and get it. But without that exercise, not only our physical health, but our mental health appears to suffer. According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise effectively decreases depression and anxiety–in other words, depression and anxiety may be caused in part by lack of exercise.

So what do we do? We have to make up some excuse and substitute faux exercise for the active farming/gardening/hunting/gathering lifestyles our ancestors lived.

By the way, about 20% of Americans are on psychiatric medications of some sort, [warning PDF] of which anti-depressants are one of the most commonly prescribed:

Overall, the number of Americans on medications used to treat psychological and behavioral disorders has substantially increased since 2001; more than one‐in‐five adults was on at least one
of these medications in 2010, up 22 percent from ten years earlier. Women are far more likely to take a drug to treat a mental health condition than men, with more than a quarter of the adult
female population on these drugs in 2010 as compared to 15 percent of men.

Women ages 45 and older showed the highest use of these drugs overall. …

The trends among children are opposite those of adults: boys are the higher utilizers of these medications overall but girls’ use has been increasing at a faster rate.

This is mind-boggling. 1 in 5 of us is mentally ill, (supposedly,) and the percent for young women in the “prime of their life” years is even higher. (The rates for Native Americans are astronomical.)

Lack of exercise isn’t the only problem, but I wager a decent chunk of it is that our lives have changed so radically over the past 100 years that we are critically lacking various activities that used to make us happy and provide meaning.

Take the rise of atheism. Irrespective of whether God exists or not, many functions–community events, socializing, charity, morality lessons, etc–have historically been done by religious groups. Atheists are working on replacements, but developing a full system that works without the compulsion of religious belief may take a long while.

Sports and video games replace war and personal competition. TV sitcoms replace friendship. Twitter replaces real life conversation. Politics replace friendship, conversation, and religion.

There’s something silly about most of these activities, and yet they seem to make us happy. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enjoying knitting, even if you’re making toy octopuses instead of sweaters. Nor does there seem to be anything wrong with enjoying a movie or a game. The problem comes when people get addicted to these activities, which may be increasingly likely as our ability to make fake activities–like hyper-realistic special effects in movies–increases.

Given modernity, should we indulge? Or can we develop something better?

Species of Exit: Israel

Israel is–as far as I can tell–one of the sanest, least self-destructive states in the entire West. (Note: this is not to say that I love everything about Israel; this is actually a pretty low bar, given what’s happening everywhere else.) Their people are literate and healthy, they have a per capita GDP of 36.5k, (33rd in the world,) and they’re 18th globally on the Human Development Index. They don’t throw people off of buildings or have public floggings, and despite the fact that they have birth control and the state actually pays for abortions, the Jewish population still has a positive fertility rate:

The fertility rates of Jewish and Arab women were identical for the first time in Israeli history in 2015, according to figures released by the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics on Tuesday….Jewish and Arab women had given birth to an average of 3.13 children as of last year.

According to Newsweek:

This high fertility rate is not simply an artifact of Israel’s growing ultra-Orthodox or Haredi population; the non-Haredi fertility rate is 2.6. (This is, by the way, a far higher fertility rate than that of American Jews, which is 1.9; the replacement rate is 2.3.)

Did you think we were getting through this without a Polandball joke? And they’ve managed to resist getting conquered by their aggressive and numerically superior neighbors several times in the past century.

Not bad for a country that didn’t exist 100 years ago, had to be built from the sand up, and is filled with people whom conventional wisdom holds ought to have been rendered completely useless by multi-generational epigenetic trauma.

Now, yes, Israel does get a lot of support from the US, and who knows what it would look like (or if it would exist at all,) in an alternative timeline where the US ignores it. Israel probably isn’t perfect, just interesting.

Harking back to my Measures of Meaning post, I propose that Israel has 4 things going for it:

Ethiopian Jews
Ethiopian Jewish member of the IDF

1. Israelis have meaningful work. Their work has been, literally, to build and secure their nation. Israelis have had to build almost the entire infrastructure of their country over the past hundred years, from irrigation systems to roads to cities. Today, Tel Aviv is a city with a population of 430,000 people. In 1900, Tel Aviv didn’t exist.

Unlike the US, Israel has a draft: every Israeli citizen, male and female, has to serve in the Israeli army. (Obviously exceptions exist.) This is not seen as state-run slavery but part of making sure the entire society continues to exist, because Israel faces some pretty real threats to its borders.

The IDF even has a special division for autists:

Many autistic soldiers who would otherwise be exempt from military service have found a place in Unit 9900, a selective intelligence squad where their heightened perceptual skills are an asset. …

The relationship is a mutually beneficial one. For these young people, the unit is an opportunity to participate in a part of Israeli life that might otherwise be closed to them. And for the military, it’s an opportunity to harness the unique skill sets that often come with autism: extraordinary capacities for visual thinking and attention to detail, both of which lend themselves well to the highly specialized task of aerial analysis.

picture-5

I suspect–based on personal conversations–that there is something similar in the US military, but have no proof.

My anthropological work suggests that one of the reasons people enter the military is to find meaning in their lives, (though this doesn’t work nearly as well when your country does things like invade completely irrelevant countries you don’t actually care about like Vietnam.)

2. Like I said, Israelis have above-replacement total fertility–meaning that many Israelis hail from large families, with lots of children, siblings, and cousins. Israelis appear to have managed to achieve this in part by subsidizing births (which probably will have some long-term negative effects for them,*) and in part by explicitly advocating high birth rates in order to prevent themselves from being out-bred by the Palestinians and to show that Hitler what for.

*ETA: See the comments for a discussion of dysgenic fertility on Israel.

I have been saving this picture for so long3. Religion is so obviously a unifying force in Israeli life that I don’t think I need to detail it.

What about that fourth thing? Oh yes: Many of the Jews who don’t like the idea of “nations” and “ethno states” and “religion” probably moved to the US instead of Israel. The US got the SJW Jews and Israel got the nationalist Jews.

4. A sense of themselves as a distinct nation. As I’ve discussed before, this is not exactly genetic, due to different Jewish groups having absorbed about 50% of their DNA from the folks around them during the diaspora years, and of course a big part of the country is Arab/Palestinians, but there is still much genetically in common.

There is probably a lot I’m missing.

15han-2-master675Of course there are religious Jews in the US (and their numbers are growing relative to the secular Jewish population.) While Jews as a whole voted 70% for Hillary, only 56% of the Orthodox supported her. (I’ve seen different numbers elsewhere, but these are the ones I’ve been able to find a source for.)

(I suspect that America’s high-IQ secular Jews suffer from being in America instead of Israel. They don’t have religion to guide them, children to focus them, nor (in many cases) meaningful work. Without something positive to work towards, they turn to politics/ideology to provide meaning in their lives, while simultaneously suffering the psychological stress of knowing that the Holocaust was directed at people like them.)

But that’s irrelevant to Israeli Jews.

Long-term, I’m not bullish on Israel, given its precarious location, surrounded by nations that aren’t very fond of it–and I am not offering any opinions about the Israeli/Palestinian situation–but as first world nations go, it at least desires to keep existing.

On the Measures of Meaning

This post was inspired primarily by a liberal acquaintance–we’ll call her Juliet.

picture-6Since the election, Juliet has been suicidal. I don’t mean she’s actually tried to commit suicide; (suicidal women very rarely actually commit suicide, unlike suicidal men.) I just mean she’s posted a lot of angst-ridden things on the internet about how she wants to die because Trump is going to destroy everything in a giant fireball, and literally the only thing she has left to live for are her 3 dogs and 10 cats.

Juliet is one of those people who thinks that we are one heavy bootstep away from Holocaust 2.0 (despite such a thing never having happened in all of American history,) and that the US was an oppressive, horrible, quasi-genocidal place up until 4-8 years ago. (She’s the same age as me, so she has no youth excuse for not knowing what life was like 10 years ago.)

I think this is a side effect of really buying into the BLM narrative that the police have just been slaughtering black children in the streets and we are finally doing something about it, and the perception that gay people are a much larger % of the population than they actually are and assumption that forbidding gay marriage inconvenienced people far more than it actually did. (Buying the BLM narrative is understandable, I guess, if you aren’t familiar with crime stats.)

Poem by "ECC" http://ecc-poetry.tumblr.com/tagged/edited-to-reflect-my-latina-status
Poem by “ECC

Now, I have lived through elections that didn’t go my way. My side has lost, and I have felt quite unhappy. But I have never rioted, set things on fire, or decided that my life is meaningless and begun envying the dead.

So I got thinking: What gives people meaning? Why do many people feel like their lives are meaningless?

Meaning can come from many sources, but (I suspect) we derive it from three main sources:

1. Worthwhile work

2. Family

3. Religion

1. Worthwhile work is work that is valuable and inherently satisfying. Farmers, for example, do worthwhile work. Worthwhile work creates a direct relationship between a person’s efforts and the food on their table and their physical well-being, where working harder results in a better life for oneself and potentially one’s friends, family, and community.

Marx (who was not entirely wrong about everything) wrote about how modern industrial factories disassociate the worker from the product of his labor. No individual worker creates a single product, and the individual working harder than expected creates no appreciable effect on the end results. Workers have no control over factories, cannot (typically) implement creative ideas that would improve products or production methods, and basically live at the whims of the factory owners and broad economic trends rather than their own efforts.

(There’s a great irony that Marxism, as actually implemented, just scaled all of the problems of the factory up to the level of the whole society, making entire nations miserable.)

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that people desire to do things that result in eating and don’t really want to obey others in huge, impersonal systems where their actions don’t have any obvious impact on their personal well-being.

Due to technological changes, most of us have far nicer, healthier, well-fed lives than our ancestors, while simultaneously our jobs have become far less instinctually fulfilling, because we simply don’t need that many people producing food or hand-making clothes and furniture anymore. So few of us–my acquaintance included–are likely to have actually fulfilling work.

2. People live–literally–for their families. Throughout the entirety of human history, almost 100% of people who survived infancy and lived long enough to reproduce and continue the human line were people whose families cared about them and took care of them.

Yes, women post inordinately about their children and grandparents babble on about their “grandbabies,” but this is exactly as it should be; from an evolutionary perspective, your descendents are the most important thing in the world to you. All of our efforts are ultimately aimed at the well-being and survival of our children; indeed, many people would sacrifice their own lives to save their kids.

To give a personal example: having kids (well, one at a time, so kid) was probably the single most significant event in my life. Not just because of the predictable changes (less sleep, more diaper changes,) but also because of the not-subtle at all but somewhat difficult to describe complete and utter re-orienting of my entire “self.”

In real life, I am a very shy, retiring person. A few weeks into kiddo’s life, I became concerned that something was wrong, and at that moment, I knew that nothing and nobody would stop me from getting my child to the doctor. My normally shy, fearful personality was dust before the needs of my child.

People talk about “female empowerment.” This was empowerment.

(Luckily, everything turned out fine–colic is a very common problem and in many cases can be treated, btw.)

Perhaps not surprising, all of the people I know who are distressed because their lives lack meaning also do not have children. Indeed, the person I know who went the furthest down this road was a father whose wife left him and whose small child died, leaving him utterly alone. Without any purpose in his life, he stopped working, stopped interacting with the world, and became homeless: a kind of living death.

The devastation of loneliness is horrible.

And yet, despite living in the richest society in pretty much all of human history, we’ve decided en masse to cut the number of children we have. Gone are the days when children had 7 siblings and 40 cousins who all lived nearby and played together. Gone are the neighborhoods full of happy children who can just walk outside and find a playmate. We moderns are far more likely than our ancestors to have no children, no siblings, no spouse, and to live 3,000 miles away from our own parents.

Juliet, as you may have guessed, does not have any children. (Hence the cats.)

3. The power of religion to bring meaning to people’s lives almost needs no explanation. Religious people are happier, more fulfilled, and live longer, on average, than atheists, despite atheists’ strong concentration among society’s richest and smartest. I’ve even heard that priests/ministers have some of the highest work satisfaction levels–their work is meaningful and pleasant.

In times of suffering, religion provides comfort and soothes distress. It provides the promise that even horrible things are actually part of some grand plan that we don’t understand and that everything will be all right in the end. The idea that death is not permanent, your sins can be forgiven, or that you can influence divine powers to make the world a better place all make people happier.

Now, I am not saying this because I am a religious person who wants you to follow my religion. Like Juliet, I don’t believe in God (though I do believe, metaphorically, in GNON, which does let me attribute some “purpose” to the grand variety I see around me. Things do not always go my way, but unlike Juliet, I live in a world that at least makes sense.)

 

Work, scaled up, is the business of taming the land, building homes and cities and ultimately a country. Family, scaled up, is the tribe, the clan, and the nation. And religion itself is highly grounded in both land and family.

Juliet, being a very smart, sensible person, (who does not believe in sexist nonsense like evolutionary psychology,) looks at all of the things that give meaning to people’s lives and dismisses them as absurd. Religion is obviously delusional; having children is an inconvenience; and while she’d love a meaningful job if she could get one, these are hard to come by. Having rejected or been denied all of the things that normally give people meaning, she finds that life is meaningless.

We do have one source of meaning left: politics. As Moldbug famously noted, liberalism is neo-Puritanism is the religion of America, simply shorn of that Constitutionally inconvenient “God” business.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

cara-delevingne-support-the-bring-back-our-girlsWith nothing else to provide meaning to their lives, not even the mild nationalism of thinking their own country/society a generally nice place, lonely atheists with empty jobs have turned to politics to fill the void. If they can save the whales, or the refugees, or the gay people, then they will have achieved meaning. In reality, this dedication is often quite shallow, a fly-by-night concern with the lives of strangers that lasts until the next pressing hashtag pops up.

It’s as though the desire to care for one’s family does not dissipate simply because one is barren, but instead gets transferred to strangers (or animals) who are unlikely to return the favor.

I mean, take another look at that poem, which I’ve seen about a dozen SJWs post. How many of these women are going to have even one child, much less an army of them (mixed race or not)? How many of these women are already married and are effectively declaring that they intend to betray their own husbands? How many of them could, after having babies with a dozen different men, afford to raise and care for them by themselves, without depending on the horrible, Trump-run white-supremecist state for help? (Suing men for child support is depending on the state.)

No. I’m pretty sure the vast majority of people posting the poem have no intention of acting on it. Someone else can do the actual work of making babies and raising the next generation of social warriors.

Juliet’s suicidality stems from the fact that she cannot achieve meaningful political change (or even just attach herself symbolically to it) because she lives in a democracy where the majority of people can just vote to do something else. Everything she has worked for, her entire identity as a “good person,” everything that provides meaning in her life has been destroyed just because some guys in Ohio are concerned about feeding their families.

 

This post is over, but I want to add a post script: Juliet is not even remotely Jewish. Her family is not Jewish; she has no Jewish ancestors; she has no connection to Israel. People blame a lot of stuff on Jews that I see Gentile women also doing, while plenty of religious Jews are perfectly sane people. The meaning deficit affects people of every religions/ethnic background.

History is meaningless without narrative

What is a story? Events set into a pattern.

Patterns–narratives–are how we understand the world.

Look away from the screen. What do you see? A collection of lines and colors? Or objects?

You can make sense of the light entering your eyes because your brain organizes them into patterns. You recognize that a colon and a parentheses are a face :) You recognize that orange and black stripes mean a tiger is nearby. Sounds coalesce into words and marks scratched in wet clay into epics.

If you spot a tiger every time you go to the watering hole, you notice a pattern–and if you’re lucky, find a new watering hole. If you can’t recognize patterns, chances are good you’ll be eaten by a tiger.

Brains love patterns so much, you can trigger a state of bliss just by repeating patterns to yourself. Former schizophrenics have related to me just how nice schizophrenia can feel, which I admit seems kind of counter-intuitive, but then, I found a pattern in some data today and was so happy as a result, that I can see how that might be so.

Suppose I read you numbers at random from some dataset–say, daily rainfall in Helsinki for the past 2000 years. Each number would tell you something about that particular day, but the dataset as a whole would tell you nothing. Random data is just noise. Even if I read the numbers in order, you’d probably hear little more than noise, though if you paid attention, you might start to hear a pattern after a year or two of rainfalls.

But if I made a graph, Helskinki’s rainy October and Novembers–and dry Aprils–would suddenly stand out. We could make graphs of rainfall over years, months, or centuries. We could look for all kinds of patterns–and interesting outliers.

Once we see patterns, we find meaning.

History is the study of change. An accounting of history without patterns soon devolves into random noise. Names, dates. Names, dates. The narratives give it meaning.

I first really discovered this while trying to research the French Revolution via Wikipedia. Wikipedia tries its darndest not to impart any particular bias to its historical articles, resulting in a lot of names and dates and places, without much that ties it all together. This actually makes them hard to read; after a while my eyes glaze over and my brain starts refusing to process anymore. By contrast, pick up any book on the French Revolution, and you’ll probably discover the author’s central thesis “The peasants made them do it!” or “Crop failures drove them to revolt!” or “System breakdown!” The author takes care to marshal evidence in favor of his thesis, drawing out the patterns for you.

It took only one small book on the French Revolution for it to suddenly make sense. The was a stark difference between my brain’s willingness to follow this author’s train of thought (“The peasants made them do it!”) and my brain’s willingness to follow the Wikipedia’s N-POV articles, even though I did not necessarily agree with the author’s thesis.

To be clear, the Wikipedia is not bad for avoiding POV; many, many theses are completely wrong. You could not even begin to write an article on the French Revolution if you wanted to make an accurate presentation of all the theses people have had on the subject, or even just the major ones. The best thing for the Wikipedia is to try to present factual information, and leave it up to the readers to find their own patterns.

(The “badly written” Wikipedia articles have bias and POV-issues and actually make sense, even if I often disagree with the author’s thesis.)

Much of what I do here on this blog is look for patterns in the data. “Here’s something interesting,” I say. “Can I find any patterns? Anything that might fit this data?” It is all very speculative. I know it is speculative. I hope that you know that I know that I am speculating, and not proclaiming to know the One True Truth.

Take the post, “Why do Native Americans have so much Neanderthal DNA?” Native Americans appear to have more Neanderthal DNA than other people is the starting datum; from there I try to marshal up some patterns that might explain things. Same with, say, “Adulterations in the Feed.”

Ultimately, I wager that a lot of my theories will turn out to be wrong. The real world does not care about patterns nearly so much as our little brains do, and we are prone to seeking out patterns in data even when there really aren’t any. Sometimes shit just happens and it doesn’t really mean anything bigger than the shit that is happening right now. Maybe there is no master plan. But we can’t live without meaning. We must have our patterns to make sense of the world, so our patterns we will have.

Remember, you are a braid in spacetime:

from Life is a Braid in Spacetime by Max Tegmark, Illustration by Chad Hagen