Spiteful Mutants?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or as Kaczynski put it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I want to be left in peace.