Conservatives Over-Generalize; Liberals Under-Generalize

This is a theory about a general trend.

Liberals tend to be very good at learning specific, detailed bits of information, but bad at big-picture ideas. Conservatives tend to be good at big-picture ideas, but bad at specific details. In other words, liberals are the guys who can’t see the forest for the trees, while conservatives have a habit of referring to all trees as “oaks.”

Or all sodas as Cokes:


Waitress: What would y’all like to drink?
Lady: Oh, I’ll have a Coke.
Waitress: All right, what kind of Coke?
Lady: Diet Pepsi.

When conservatives speak of general trends among people, liberals are prone to protesting that “Not all X are like that.” For liberals, the fact that one guy might be an exception to a general trend is important enough to mention in any discussion. Liberals who want to un-gender pregnancy discussion, because “men can get pregnant, too,” are a perfect example of this. (See my previous post about TERFS.)

This post was inspired by a friend’s complaint that “Trump keeps saying untrue things,” to which I responded that the Hillary also says lots of untrue things. It seems to me that there is a distinct pattern in the kinds of untruths each camp engages in.


If you ask the average conservative to define the races of man, he’d probably tell you: black, white, and Asian. Give him a crayon and a map of the world, and he’d probably produce something like this:

Ask the average liberal to define the races of man, and he’ll tell you that race is a social construct and that there’s more genetic variation within races than between them.

Diagram of Trans-species polymorphisms, from Evo and Proud
Diagram of Trans-species polymorphisms, from Evo and Proud

Both of these statements are basically correct, (but see here) but in different ways. The Conservative misses the within-racial variety (and may draw the racial borders incorrectly, eg, assuming that north Africans or Australians are Black.) And the Liberal misses that race is actually a real thing, and that the issue of genetic between vs. within also holds true for different species (see: species is a social construct,) and yet we still recognize that “dog” is a useful word for describing a real category of things we encounter in the real world.

Conservatives are prone to saying things like, “Blacks commit more crime than whites,” and liberals are prone to responding that the majority of black people aren’t criminals.

nope-the-claim-trump-says-clinton-acid-washed-her-email-4623517I find that it helps a lot in understanding people if I give them the benefit of the doubt and try to understand what they mean, rather than get hung up on the exact words they use.

NBC perhaps went too far down this path when they claimed that Trump had lied for saying Clinton “acid washed” her email server, when in fact she had used an app called BleachBit. Sure, bleach is a weak base, not an acid, but I don’t think Trump was actually trying to discuss chemistry in this case.

When the newsmedia claimed that the Syrian refugees pouring into Germany would be “good for the German economy,” this was obviously false. Yes, some Syrians are exceptionally bright, hardworking, motivated people who will do their best to benefit their new home. But most refugees are traumatized and don’t speak the local language. Few people would argue that the Syrian educational system turns out grads with test scores equal to the German system. It’s one thing to take refugees for pure humanitarian reasons, because you care about them as people. It’s another thing to pretend that refugees are going to make the average German richer. They won’t.

When Trump says there is so much wrong with black communities, so much poverty and violence, he is, broadly speaking, correct. When Hillary says there is so much good in black communities, like black businesses and churches, she is, narrowly speaking, also correct.

Of course, as Conway et al caution [warning PDF]:

Prior research suggests that liberals are more complex than conservatives. However, it may be that liberals are not more complex in general, but rather only more complex on certain topic domains (while conservatives
are more complex in other domains). Four studies (comprised of over 2,500 participants) evaluated this idea. … By making only small adjustments to a popularly used dogmatism scale, results show that liberals can be significantly more dogmatic if a liberal domain is made salient. Studies 2–4 involve the domain specificity of integrative complexity. A large number of open-ended responses from college students (Studies 2 and 3) and candidates in the 2004 Presidential election (Study 4) across an array of topic domains reveals little or no main effect of political ideology on integrative complexity, but rather topic domain by ideology interactions. Liberals are higher in complexity on some topics, but conservatives are higher on others.

Weight, Taste, and Politics: A Theory of Republican Over-Indulgence

So I was thinking about taste (flavor) and disgust (emotion.)

As I mentioned about a month ago, 25% of people are “supertasters,” that is, better at tasting than the other 75% of people. Supertasters experience flavors more intensely than ordinary tasters, resulting in a preference for “bland” food (food with too much flavor is “overwhelming” to them.) They also have a more difficult time getting used to new foods.

One of my work acquaintances of many years –we’ll call her Echo–is obese, constantly on a diet, and constantly eats sweets. She knows she should eat vegetables and tries to do so, but finds them bitter and unpleasant, and so the general outcome is as you expect: she doesn’t eat them.

Since I find most vegetables quite tasty, I find this attitude very strange–but I am willing to admit that I may be the one with unusual attitudes toward food.

Echo is also quite conservative.

This got me thinking about vegetarians vs. people who think vegetarians are crazy. Why (aside from novelty of the idea) should vegetarians be liberals? Why aren’t vegetarians just people who happen to really like vegetables?

What if there were something in preference for vegetables themselves that correlated with political ideology?

Certainly we can theorize that “supertaster” => “vegetables taste bitter” => “dislike of vegetables” => “thinks vegetarians are crazy.” (Some supertasters might think meat tastes bad, but anecdotal evidence doesn’t support this; see also Wikipedia, where supertasting is clearly associated with responses to plants:

Any evolutionary advantage to supertasting is unclear. In some environments, heightened taste response, particularly to bitterness, would represent an important advantage in avoiding potentially toxic plant alkaloids. In other environments, increased response to bitterness may have limited the range of palatable foods. …

Although individual food preference for supertasters cannot be typified, documented examples for either lessened preference or consumption include:

Mushrooms? Echo was just complaining about mushrooms.

Let’s talk about disgust. Disgust is an important reaction to things that might infect or poison you, triggering reactions from scrunching up your face to vomiting (ie, expelling the poison.) We process disgust in our amygdalas, and some people appear to have bigger or smaller amygdalas than others, with the result that the folks with more amygdalas feel more disgust.

Humans also route a variety of social situations through their amygdalas, resulting in the feeling of “disgust” in response to things that are not rotten food, like other people’s sexual behaviors, criminals, or particularly unattractive people. People with larger amygdalas also tend to find more human behaviors disgusting, and this disgust correlates with social conservatism.

To what extent are “taste” and “disgust” independent of each other? I don’t know; perhaps they are intimately linked into a single feedback system, where disgust and taste sensitivity cause each other, or perhaps they are relatively independent, so that a few unlucky people are both super-sensitive to taste and easily disgusted.

People who find other people’s behavior disgusting and off-putting may also be people who find flavors overwhelming, prefer bland or sweet foods over bitter ones, think vegetables are icky, vegetarians are crazy, and struggle to stay on diets.

What’s that, you say, I’ve just constructed a just-so story?

Well, this is the part where I go looking for evidence. It turns out that obesity and political orientation do correlate:

Michael Shin and William McCarthy, researchers from UCLA, have found an association between counties with higher levels of support for the 2012 Republican presidential candidate and higher levels of obesity in those counties.

Shin and McCarthy's map of obesity vs. political orientation
Shin and McCarthy’s map of obesity vs. political orientation

Looks like the Mormons and Southern blacks are outliers.

(I don’t really like maps like this for displaying data; I would much prefer a simple graph showing orientation on one axis and obesity on the other, with each county as a datapoint.)

(Unsurprisingly, the first 49 hits I got when searching for correlations between political orientation and obesity were almost all about what other people think of fat people, not what fat people think. This is probably because researchers tend to be skinny people who want to fight “fat phobia” but aren’t actually interested in the opinions of fat people.)

The 15 most caffeinated cities, from I love Coffee
The 15 most caffeinated cities, from I love Coffee–note that Phoenix is #7, not #1.

Disgust also correlates with political belief, but we already knew that.

A not entirely scientific survey also indicates that liberals seem to like vegetables better than conservatives:

  • Liberals are 28 percent more likely than conservatives to eat fresh fruit daily, and 17 percent more likely to eat toast or a bagel in the morning, while conservatives are 20 percent more likely to skip breakfast.
  • Ten percent of liberals surveyed indicated they are vegetarians, compared with 3 percent of conservatives.
  • Liberals are 28 percent more likely than conservatives to enjoy beer, with 60 percent of liberals indicating they like beer.

(See above where Wikipedia noted that supertasters dislike beer.) I will also note that coffee, which supertasters tend to dislike because it is too bitter, is very popular in the ultra-liberal cities of Portland and Seattle, whereas heavily sweetened iced tea is practically the official beverage of the South.

The only remaining question is if supertasters are conservative. That may take some research.

Update: I have not found, to my disappointment, a simple study that just looks at correlation between ideology and supertasting (or nontasting.) However, I have found a couple of useful items.

In Verbal priming and taste sensitivity make moral transgressions gross, Herz writes:

Standard tests of disgust sensitivity, a questionnaire developed for this research assessing different types of moral transgressions (nonvisceral, implied-visceral, visceral) with the terms “angry” and “grossed-out,” and a taste sensitivity test of 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP) were administered to 102 participants. [PROP is commonly used to test for “supertasters.”] Results confirmed past findings that the more sensitive to PROP a participant was the more disgusted they were by visceral, but not moral, disgust elicitors. Importantly, the findings newly revealed that taste sensitivity had no bearing on evaluations of moral transgressions, regardless of their visceral nature, when “angry” was the emotion primed. However, when “grossed-out” was primed for evaluating moral violations, the more intense PROP tasted to a participant the more “grossed-out” they were by all transgressions. Women were generally more disgust sensitive and morally condemning than men, … The present findings support the proposition that moral and visceral disgust do not share a common oral origin, but show that linguistic priming can transform a moral transgression into a viscerally repulsive event and that susceptibility to this priming varies as a function of an individual’s sensitivity to the origins of visceral disgust—bitter taste. [bold mine.]

In other words, supertasters are more easily disgusted, and with verbal priming will transfer that disgust to moral transgressions. (And easily disgusted people tend to be conservatives.)

The Effect of Calorie Information on Consumers’ Food Choice: Sources of Observed Gender Heterogeneity, by Heiman and Lowengart, states:

While previous studies found that inherited taste-blindness to bitter compounds such
as PROP may be a risk factor for obesity, this literature has been hotly disputed
(Keller et al. 2010).

(Always remember, of course, that a great many social-science studies ultimately do not replicate.)

I’ll let you know if I find anything else.

Is Disgust Real? (Part 2 of a series)

(See also: Part 1, Yes, Women Think Male Sexuality is Disgusting; Part 3, Disney Explains Disgust; and Part 4, Disgust vs. Aggression vs. Fertility.)

One of the theories that undergirds a large subset of my thoughts on how brains work is the idea that Disgust is a Real Thing.

I don’t just mean a mild aversion to things that smell bad, like overturned port-a-potties or that fuzzy thing you found growing in the back of the fridge that might have been lasagna, once upon a time. Even I have such aversions.

I mean reactions like screaming and looking like you are about to vomit upon finding a chicken heart in your soup; gagging at the sight of trans people or female body hair; writhing and waving your hands while removing a slug from your porch; or the claim that talking about rats at the dinner table puts you off your meal. Or more generally, people claiming, “That’s disgusting!” or “What a creep!” about things or people that obviously aren’t even stinky.

There is a parable about a deaf person watching people dance to music he can’t hear and assuming that the people have all gone mad.

For most of my life, I assumed these reactions were just some sort of complicated schtick people put on, for totally obtuse reasons. It was only about a year ago that I realized, in a flash of insight, that this disgust is a real thing that people actually feel.

I recently expressed this idea to a friend, and they stared at me in shock. (That, or they were joking.) We both agreed that chicken hearts are a perfectly normal thing to put in soup, so at least I’m not the only one confused by this.

This breakthrough happened as a result of reading a slew of neuro-political articles that I can’t find now, and it looks like the site itself might be gone, which makes me really sad. I’ve linked to at least one of them before, which means that now my old links are dead, too. Damn. Luckily, it looks like Wired has an article covering the same or similar research: Primal Propensity for Disgust Shapes Political Positions.

“The latest such finding comes from a study of people who looked at gross images, such as a man eating earthworms. Viewers who self-identified as conservative, especially those opposing gay marriage, reacted with particularly deep disgust. … Disgust is especially interesting to researchers because it’s such a fundamental sensation, an emotional building block so primal that feelings of moral repugnance originate in neurobiological processes shared with a repugnance for rotten food.”

So when people say that some moral or political thing is, “disgusting,” I don’t think they’re being metaphorical; I think they actually, literally mean that the idea of it makes them want to vomit.

Which begs the question: Why?

Simply put, I suspect that some of us have more of our brain space devoted to processing disgust than others. I can handle lab rats–or pieces of dead lab rats–without any internal reaction, I don’t care if there are trans people in my bathroom, and I suspect my sense of smell isn’t very good. My opinions on moral issues are routed primarily through what I hope are the rational, logic-making parts of my brain.

By contrast, people with stronger disgust reactions probably have more of their brain space devoted to disgust, and so are routing more of their sensory experiences through that region, and so feel strong, physical disgust in reaction to a variety of things, like people with different cultural norms than themselves. Their moral reasoning comes from a more instinctual place.

It is tempting to claim that processing things logically is superior to routing them through the disgust regions, but sometimes things are disgusting for good, evolutionarily sound reasons. Having an instinctual aversion to rats is not such a bad thing, given that they have historically been disease vectors. Most of our instincts exist to protect and help us, after all.

(See also: Part 1, Yes, Women Think Male Sexuality is Disgusting; Part 3, Disney Explains Disgust; and Part 4, Disgust vs. Aggression vs. Fertility.)

A Zombie-Free Uncanny Valley

Maybe the Uncanny Valley has nothing to do with avoiding sick/dead people, maybe nothing to do with anything specifically human-oriented at all, but with plain-ol’ conceptual category violations? Suppose you are trying to divide some class of reality into two discrete categories, like “plants” and “animals” or “poetry” and “prose”. Edge cases that don’t fit neatly into either category may be problematic, annoying, or otherwise troubling. Your brain tries to cram something into Category A, then a new data point comes along, and you switch to cramming it into Category B. Then more data and back to A. Then back to B. This might happen even at a subconscious level, flicking back and forth between two categories you normally assign instinctively, like human and non-human, forcing you to devote brain power to something that’s normally automatic. This is probably stressful for the brain.

In some cases, edge cases may be inconsequential and people may just ignore them; in some cases, though, group membership is important–people seem particularly keen on arguments about peoples’ inclusion in various human groups, hence accusations that people are “posers” or otherwise claiming membership they may not deserve.

Some people may prefer discreet categories more strongly than others, and so be more bothered by edge cases; other people may be more mentally flexible or capable of dealing with a third category labeled “edge cases”. It’s also possible that some people do not bother with discreet categories at all.

It would be interesting to test people’s preference for discreet categories, and then see if this correlates with disgust at humanoid robots or any particular political identities.

It would also be interesting to see if there are ways to equip people with different conceptual paradigms for dealing with data that better accommodate edge cases; a “Core vs. Periphery” approach may be better in some cases than discreet categories, for example.


So, building on last night’s potential revelation, let’s review what we may or may not know about amygdalas.

I had read (summaries of) studies indicating that conservatives have larger amygdalas than liberals. From this I concluded that amygdalas were likely to be involved in some sort of processing that produces more conservative results.

But what does the amygdala do? Articles indicated involvement in the disgust reflex. I concluded that people who are more easily disgusted are just more likely to feel disgust in response to novelty.

But, Frost brings up a good point: has the initial orientation/amygdala data been confounded by researchers failing to control for ethnicity? If researchers have classed, say, Muslims who vote Labour as liberals, then obviously the data is meaningless?

There is an to solve this conundrum: Just find some data that controls for ethnicity and measures liberalness or conservatism, (rather than use self-reported orientation). If no suitable studies exist, do one–go to some rural college, collect an ethnically similar cohort, give them a quiz about their attitudes toward novel foods and other such non-emotionally charged things that seem to correlate with political orientation, and then scan the brains of equal numbers of liberals and conservatives and see what you get. If you find some sort of correlation, repeat the experiment with other ethnicities. If you find nothing, widen your scope to compare whites from different areas, or whites who are further apart in political orientation. If you still find nothing, do a multi-ethnic study and see if the initial results were just ethnic differences in party affiliation.

Recent articles further indicate that my interpretations may have been wrong, or that the picture is more complicated than I realized, eg, Neural and cognitive characteristics of extraordinary altruists, “Functional imaging and behavioral tasks included face-emotion processing paradigms that reliably distinguish psychopathic individuals from controls. Here we show that extraordinary altruists can be distinguished from controls by their enhanced volume in right amygdala and enhanced responsiveness of this structure to fearful facial expressions, an effect that predicts superior perceptual sensitivity to these expressions. These results mirror the reduced amygdala volume and reduced responsiveness to fearful facial expressions observed in psychopathic individuals.”

This does not support my “conservatives have larger disgust reflexes becuz amygdalas,” theory, but would be consistent with a “extremely conservative people were mis-categorized as liberals in other studies,” result.

More research is necessary.

Peter Frost and Amygdalas

(I promised I’d get to this.)

Amusingly, Peter Frost, over on Evo and Proud, just recently posted, “Are liberals and conservatives differently wired?“, which describes some of the recent studies on the subject and draws conclusions broadly counter to my own. I thought you should know.

Actually, I suspect that most of the reason for or ‘disagreement’ is that we are using a different organizing schema to class people as “liberal” or “conservative.” Frost is starting with people’s self-reported affiliation, noting the differences found in the experiments, and then noting the (rather large) ethnic differences between the two groups and speculating that much of the observed difference may be primarily ethnic, rather than some grand approach to principles.

I started by first controlling for race, because otherwise (IMO) we end up smushing most of the non-whites into incorrect categories by assuming that they are voting for candidates and policies for the same reasons as whites. IE, “attitude towards blacks” and “attitude toward people who are ethnically different from yourself” might be roughly synonymous if you happen to be a white person who lives near black people, but they’re not at all synonymous if you happen to be a black person. Of course black people tend to vote for candidates who seem most likely to not be racist against black people, but that’s not the same as being liberal. (That’s just common sense.) However, since we live in a country where the majority of people are white, we tend to default toward the white POV when talking about political affiliation, and so many people who are not actually liberal at all may call themselves liberal just because they vote for the Democrats (and possibly, though I suspect less likely, vice versa.)

Any study looking for neurological differences between “liberals” and “conservatives” that just uses self-reported political orientation and doesn’t control for ethnicity seems rather dubious. If it turns out that all of my understanding of neuroprocessing is compromised, I’m going to be sad and will have to re-research everything.

Once you factor out the wonky racial dynamics, I think there is actually such thing as more or less liberal people. In the case of the British study Frost cites, I strongly suspect that the Muslims who vote Labour are actually quite conservative. Likewise, African Americans have very high rates of church attendance and strike me as fairly conservative overall, though not as conservative as most Muslims. The same is more or less also true of American Hispanics and Asians, while most white Europeans strike me as more liberal than American whites.

Studies: Disgust, Prisoner’s Dilemma

Disgust leads people to lie and cheat; cleanliness leads to ethical behavior


Prisoners better at Prisoner’s Dilemma than non-Prisoners


“… In one experiment, participants evaluated consumer products such as antidiarrheal medicine, diapers, feminine care pads, cat litter and adult incontinence products. In another, participants wrote essays about their most disgusting memory. In the third, participants watched a disgusting toilet scene from the movie “Trainspotting.” Once effectively disgusted, participants engaged in experiments that judged their willingness to lie and cheat for financial gain. Mittal and colleagues found that people who experienced disgust consistently engaged in self-interested behaviors at a significantly higher rate than those who did not.

“In another set of experiments, after inducing the state of disgust on participants, the researchers then had them evaluate cleansing products, such as disinfectants, household cleaners and body washes. Those who evaluated the cleansing products did not engage in deceptive behaviors any more than those in the neutral emotion condition.

“At the basic level, if you have environments that are cleaner, if you have workplaces that are cleaner, people should be less likely to feel disgusted,” Mittal said. “If there is less likelihood to feel disgusted, there will be a lower likelihood that people need to be self-focused and there will be a higher likelihood for people to cooperate with each other.” ”



“for the simultaneous game, only 37% of students cooperate. Inmates cooperated 56% of the time.

On a pair basis, only 13% of student pairs managed to get the best mutual outcome and cooperate, whereas 30% of prisoners do.

In the sequential game, far more students (63%) cooperate, so the mutual cooperation rate skyrockets to 39%. For prisoners, it remains about the same.”

A several things may be going on:
1. Defecting on your fellow prisoners may have really negative consequences that college students don’t face.
2. Prisoners may identify strongly with each other as fellow prisoners.
3. Prisoners may be united by some form of hatred for the people keeping them in prison, leading them to cooperate with each other over outsiders even when they don’t like each other.
4. Prisoners may have been through enough bad crap already in their lives that the promise of a few cigarettes seems trivial and not worth defecting over.
5. Prisoners are drawn disproportionately from a population that happens to have strong norms or instincts about not defecting.
6. College students are jerks.

Feedback Loops

I am pretty sure that neurotypicals (normal people) have “feeedback loops” in their brains that reward them for conformist behavior and punish them for non-conformist behavior.

We can call this “mirror neurons”, though I understand that’s probably an oversimplification.

Americans tend to glorify being non-conformist in their words, but are actually pretty darn conformist in their actions. The average person seems to think of themselves as a radical noncomformist, while going along with whatever ideas happen to be in their vicinity. Then they loudly trumpet about how great it is to be a nonconformist like them and how terrible it is to be a sheep.

Such people are annoying.

In reality, conformity actually has a lot going for it. You learn to talk by imitating the people around you. If you can’t imitate, then you probably won’t learn to talk, and you’ll be fucked for life. Other people do tons of things right, every day–hence why they are alive. Imitating other people is actually a good way to learn how to do lots of useful things.

In the state of nature, if everyone in your tribe eats the blue berries and avoids the red ones, its probably a good idea to eat the blue berries and avoid the red ones. Even if your fellow tribesmen give you a totally dumb reason for avoiding the red ones, like, “Thors blood got on them,” you should probably avoid them.

Likewise, if you’re out collecting berries one day and a fellow tribesman runs past, yelling “LION!” it’s probably not in your interest to say, “Are you sure it was a lion?” You should probably imitate him.

These feedback loops may not just encourage you to imitate others, but also punish people for non-imitation. That is, people may feel deeply unsettled or uncomfortable if they find themselves out of sync with others. This provides strong incentive to fix the problem, or if unfixable, may create long-term psychological stress.

Downsides to these feedback loops:

1. Sometimes, everyone around you is wrong.

2. Sometimes, you cannot conform to everyone, especially if everyone does not conform to each other.

3. These loops may induce great discomfort in people merely observing other people non-conforming.

If I have a strong urge to conform at all times, and that urge utilizes mirror neurons to tell me what other people are doing, and then I observe you non-conforming, that may induce the same reaction in me as if I were the one non-conforming. Then in order for me to feel psychologically at peace, I have to make you stop non-conforming.

Memetic Separatism => Ethnicity (part 2 of the meme posts)

So, as I was saying, before I had to run off…

Meme Mitochondrias reproduce primarily by hitching a ride on human reproduction. Success, therefore, optimizes them to encourage human reproduction.
Meme mitochondrias do not optimize for pleasure.

Meme Viruses reproduce by convincing people to adopt them.
Success, therefore, optimizes them to encourage pleasure or beneficial habits.
Meme viruses do not optimize for human reproduction.

Memes can switch forms–Christianity was originally spread as a virus, but quickly became mitochondrial. Today, with church membership waning across the US (and the Rest of the West,) American churches are campaigning actively for more Hispanic members via immigration reform–failure of mitochondrial mode leads to activation of viral mode.

Mormonism has spread particularly well because it employs both modes.

One of the conclusions I draw from this is that mitochondrial memes will tend to look rather unpleasant to people. Few people will adopt these memes if exposed to them after childhood, and many people raised with these memes will “defect”.

EG, being Amish. The Amish community has had significant out-migration over the years–about 25% each generation, from what I’ve heard–but almost zero in-migration. Being Amish simply isn’t attractive to terribly many non-Amish. (By contrast, being an American is attractive to millions of non-Americans.)

The Amish continue to exist because they have tons of children–enough children to replace the defectors (and then some.) To put it in numbers:

If the average Amish woman had 2 children, and 25% of Amish children defected during Rumspringa, the effective TFR would be only 1.5 children per woman, and the population would quickly shrink.
If the average Amish woman has 4 children, and 25% defect, the effective TFR remains 3 children per woman, and the population still grows.

We can call this process, “boiling off”. Over time, the Amish who are most inclined toward the outside world are most likely to boil off, while the most Amishy-Amish are most likely to stay, leading to an ever-more distinctive Amish population.

Genetically, the Amish and non-Amish Pennsylvanians are quite distinct, despite 25% or so of Amish out-migrating each generation.

(I have recently seen people commenting upon a quote attributed to Ben Franklin that complained about the Germans in Pennsylvania, as proof that people have historically been bigoted and over-reacted to new immigrants. I think it entirely possible, though, that Franklin was basically correct–having a bunch of people around who set up ethnically-exclusive communities and are explicitly opposed to interacting with the broader culture could actually be problematic.)

We would also expect the dominant narrative outside of any particular mitochondrial meme complex (ie ethnic culture) to be heavily influenced by the accounts of deserters–people who did not like that society. By contrast, people within an ethnic culture probably tend to like it (they tend to be the people who did not defect, after all.) Non-Amish find the Amish lifestyle boring and exhausting, but the Amish probably actually like it.

A similar case study is Judaism. Memetically speaking, Judaism is strongly mitochondrial. (It once spawned a viral offspring, called Christianity. This was very bad, as the newly infected could not recognize carriers of the parent meme as members of their viral community, and so kept trying to infect or exterminate them.)

There is an axiom in regular evolutionary science that two closely related species (or sub-species) cannot occupy the same environmental niche. Either one group will out-compete the other, thus replacing it, or the two groups will merge.

Is there no hope for an equilibrium solution, with neither replacement nor merger?

If the two groups have different behaviors, then sooner or later, one group will get the upper hand (or claw, paw, wing, or fin,) and out-compete the other, (or their behavior will steer them into a different environmental niche.) If the two groups have identical behaviors, then they will not be able to distinguish between each other as mates and will merge. (If they are genetically incapable of mating, then they will also be genetically incapable of performing the same behaviors, and we are back to out-competing.)

Among humans, people who possess similar values and behaviors (that is, culture, that is, memes,) tend to mate with each other, leading to genetically distinct groups of people.

In the absence of a physical barrier (like being on isolated island for a few thousand years,) memes create ethnicity. A coherent meme-system is a culture.
Cultures contain both mitochondria and virus memes, eg., Americans value democracy (virus) and monogamous marriages (mitochondrial).

Back to the Jews. The Jews have managed to exist for thousands of years (despite some pretty big obstacles,) and are genetically distinct from their neighbors, despite tremendous out-migration over the years. The Ashkenazi, for example, have very little German DNA, despite having lived in Germany for, what, about 800 years? (Rather, they’re about half Italian, mostly along their maternal lines, surprising no one who has ever observed immigrants.) Today, out-marriage among American Jews is estimated around 50%.

Looking at the behavior of the various major Jewish denominations in the US, the haredi Jews operate much like the Amish–they have a bunch of children, about 25% of whom defect to other Jewish denominations, and receive very few formerly-Conservative or Reform Jews into their ranks. Being haredi just isn’t attractive to people who aren’t born into it–it’s mitochondrial. However, the ranks of haredi Jews are still growing, due to their extremely high fertility rates.

Reform and Conservative Judaism, by contrast, receive continual infusions of new members from ex-haredim. However, their fertility rates are very low (by contrast.) They are dependent on “converts” in order to continue to exist. Therefore, they are viral, not mitochondrial.

The endpoint of this progression is obvious: Reform, Reconstructionist, and Atheist Jews who marry non-Jews and whose children and grandchildren cease being Jewish.

Incidentally, if you want your descendants to be Jewish, you must teach your children mitochondrial Judaism. Virus-Judaism is too similar to non-Judaism to maintain ethno-cultural separatism.

How can this be, if Jews have been so separate over the years?

Before Napoleon invaded the rest of Europe and imposed the aptly named Code Napoleon, Jews and Christians throughout Ashkenazi lands were legally forced into separate communities and professions, eg, the Prague Ghetto. This means they were forced into different niches, and just like birds cracking different nuts developing different beaks, we should expect to see the development of different norms, values, and skills suited to their particular niches (and a quick examination of the professions available in the Ashkenazi niche explains their development of higher IQs than other Europeans.)

Napoleon was defeated, but his Code remained, emancipating the Jews across much of Europe. With the legal restrictions gone, the two groups now occupied–more or less–the same niche. The two groups must either compete, merge, or find new niches.

The rates of out-migration, even in the 1800s in Germany, were apparently tremendous, at least according to the Jewish sources I have read on the matter. (My and my spouses’ DNA attests to this.) Like the Amish, would expect the out-migration to leave behind a remnant population that is less interested in being like the non-Jewish world. In the Ghetto days, a more liberal or atheist Jew would have been forced by circumstances to marry another Jews, probably one more religious than themselves, and their children would have reverted to the norm. More devout Jews would have been likely to marry not as devout as themselves Jews, again returning their children toward the norm.

Without the Ghetto, the less-religious marry out, and the more-religious marry each other, the only folks left. The probable result: a (growing) remnant population of increasingly haredi Jews on the one hand, and an assimilationist group whose meme-virus begins to look increasingly similar to the more secular branches of Christianity, like Unitarian Universalism.

For obvious reasons, the haredim will come to “represent” what Judaism “means” in people’s imaginations, because the assimilationist Jews simply aren’t distinct enough to be viewed as a separate group.

(Unfortunately, I would not be surprised to see American Ashkenazi IQ plummet over the next century toward the American norm, since being haredi selects more for ability to birth lots of children than IQ, and the most intelligent Jews tend to be atheists or something close to it.)

Or to put it another way, once the Ashkenazim and Christians begin occupying the same niche and inter-marrying, they adopt new meme viruses to support their new behavior patterns, and people and their spouses will want to adopt the same viruses so they can have the same behavior. Otherwise, it’s not going to work. If I want to send my kids to Hindu School, and you want to send them to Catholic School, we’re going to have a conflict. If we declare that Jesus is just an avatar of Vishnu, then we have eliminated the conflict. Our ideas (and thus our genes) have merged.

We can also see this working on a broader scale–eg, modern transportation makes it pretty easy for disaffected Texans to move to Massachusetts.

Conservative American culture is more mitochondrial–they have more babies, outsiders find their culture oppressive, and I bet you the children of conservatives are more likely to become liberals than vice versa.

Liberal culture is more viral. Liberals often forgo reproducing entirely, preferring instead to spread their ideas by talking about them. This leads to people referring to liberals as “defectors” or “traitors”. (I would rather conceptualize them as allying, but perhaps that is me being overly optimistic.)

With no credible outside threat to force Americans to unite, liberals would rather unite with other liberals and define themselves in contrast to conservatives than cooperate with (and occasionally marry) conservatives (and vice versa.) (While liberals definitely report more positive views on interracial marriage than conservatives, I should note that the actual statistics on interracial marriage and multi-ethnic households may lean just slightly toward the conservatives–possibly because of class stratification and geography in America making liberals less likely to actually interact with ethnic minorities, and possibly because Conservatives adopt more kids, often internationally.)

1. Liberal culture assimilates with cultures not traditionally part of the American mainstream, like African American, European, or Asian cultures (eg, liberals are more likely to have adopted the Asian norm of removing their shoes upon entering the house, and are more likely to pride themselves on watching foreign movies.)

2. Conservative culture becomes a remnant, like the Amish or Haredi Jews. And like them, the Conservatives become the cultural “symbol” of what it “means” to be American.

3. Liberals become very uncomfortable with identifying as “American” because it now represents “conservative” to them. I’m pretty sure that liberals who fought in the trenches of WWII self-identified pretty strongly as “American”, and believed that America was a great and glorious country out to make the world a better place by defeating the Nazis and Japanese. Modern American liberals quite frequently report being “ashamed” of being Americans, and cringe (or mock) the sight of a bald eagle alighting on an American flag hoisted aloft by Jesus delivering the Constitution to the Founding Fathers.

Conservatives, meanwhile, wish Liberals would pack up and leave already.

4. Liberalism requires a constant influx of new believers, otherwise “liberal” will shift consistently rightward due to low liberal birthrates. (Conservatives, by contrast, are closer to replacement.) It is therefore perhaps not coincidental that liberals push strongly for the incorporation of new groups of people into the country–people who will probably vote liberal, at least for a while.

There is one complication I have basically been glossing over: genetics influence your meme preferences. People with a genetic propensity toward anger will probably prefer memes that are pro-anger/violence. People with a genetic propensity toward empathy will probably prefer memes that emphasize the importance of empathizing with others. Nice people talk about how much they like Gandhi; jerks appreciate Hitler. People with larger amygdalas have stronger disgust reactions and are more likely to be conservatives and neophobic. People with smaller amygdalas think that eating raw fish sounds like it could be fun, rather than revolting. Some people are more genetically inclined to pick up new ideas, while others are more “immune” to them.

An interesting case of “immunity” is the general Western reaction to Christianity in the past few decades. Westerners are leaving Christianity in droves, (much like Judaism,) but Christianity will likely continue in this country because the new population of Hispanics is much less immune.

Mitochondrial Memes (part 1)

I have been enamored with the “meme” concept of ideas–that ideas spread like viruses, and their propagation can be understood via metaphorical evolutionary theory–ever since I first heard it.

So I was thinking this morning, that “virus” is not the only way a meme can propagate. Mitochondria are foreign DNA that long ago hitched a ride in our cells, to our mutual benefit. Mitochondria might once have been virus-like, but now they are just passed from mother to child.

Many of people’s cultural norms, like religious beliefs and political orientation, correlate strongly with their parents’ norms, suggesting that they are passed down in some way from parent to child. Obvious examples are the continuing conservatism of the American South, which has been notably more conservative than the North for over 200 years, and the remarkable stability of patterns of religious affiliation across the globe–not many Pakistani kids are going to convert to Neo-Paganism in the next decade. We shall call the way these values are transmitted “mitochondrial”.

So we may think of “meme viruses” and “meme mitochondrias”.

This construction immediately suggests that “viruses = bad”, but I think that is over applying the metaphor. After all, I can immediately think of meme viruses that I think are good, like the shift in attitudes toward smoking over the past few decades, or meme mitochondira that I think are bad, like homophobia.

A better set of inferences would be that long-term, mitochondria memes must encourage people to have children in order to be successful (otherwise they will be out-competed by mitochondrial memes that do encourage people to have more children.) So, for example, if one group of people believes in having only one child on whom they dote excessively, and they manage to pass this idea on to their child who passes it on to their grandchild, while another group of people believes that birth control is evil and manages to pass that idea on to their children, the doting people will be outbred by the anti-BC crowd.

Successful viral memes have to be good at convincing people to adopt them, so they have to sound good. Having lots of children sounds like a ton of work, so most people are not terribly convinced by that meme if they are not already inclined to it; watching TV or going to a club right now sounds like fun, so lots of people can be convinced to do these activities. Viral memes can exert a significant dampening effect on their hosts’ reproduction, so long as they still manage to spread via conversation.

Shakerism comes immediately to mind as a meme virus that could not attract enough people to overcome its depressive effect on fertility, mostly because “never have sex” is not much fun. By contrast, “Use birth control” might be a sustainable meme virus despite its depressive effects on fertility, because it allows people to do lots of fun things.