Anthropology Friday: Emile Durkheim’s The Origin and Development of Religion:

Emile Durkheim
Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim (April 15, 1858 – November 15, 1917), Karl Marx, and Max Weber are the fathers of modern social science and sociology, so I decided to read Durkheim’s essay, The Origin and Development of Religion.
According to Wikipedia,

Much of Durkheim’s work was concerned with how societies could maintain their integrity and coherence in modernity; an era in which traditional social and religious ties are no longer assumed, and in which new social institutions have come into being. His first major sociological work was The Division of Labour in Society (1893). … Durkheim’s seminal monograph, Suicide (1897), a study of suicide rates in Catholic and Protestant populations, pioneered modern social research and served to distinguish social science from psychology and political philosophy. …

Durkheim noted there are several possible pathologies that could lead to a breakdown of social integration and disintegration of the society: the two most important ones are anomie and forced division of labour; lesser ones include the lack of coordination and suicide.[61] By anomie Durkheim means a state when too rapid population growth reduces the amount of interaction between various groups, which in turn leads a breakdown of understanding (norms, values, and so on).[62] By forced division of labour Durkheim means a situation where power holders, driven by their desire for profit (greed), results in people doing the work they are unsuited for.[63] Such people are unhappy, and their desire to change the system can destabilize the society.[63] …

In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Durkheim’s first purpose was to identify the social origin and function of religion as he felt that religion was a source of camaraderie and solidarity.[44]

Durkheim saw religion as the most fundamental social institution of humankind, and one that gave rise to other social forms.[60][76] It was the religion that gave humanity the strongest sense of collective consciousness.[81]

His work on Suicide is notable enough to have its own Wikipedia page:

Durkheim explores the differing suicide rates among Protestants and Catholics, [in Germany] arguing that stronger social control among Catholics results in lower suicide rates. According to Durkheim, Catholic society has normal levels of integration while Protestant society has low levels. …Durkheim concluded that:

  • Suicide rates are higher in men than women (although married women who remained childless for a number of years ended up with a high suicide rate).
  • Suicide rates are higher for those who are single than those who are in a sexual relationship.
  • Suicide rates are higher for people without children than people with children.
  • Suicide rates are higher among Protestants than Catholics and Jews.
  • Suicide rates are higher among soldiers than civilians.
  • Suicide rates are higher in times of peace than in times of war (the suicide rate in France fell after the coup d’etat of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, for example. War also reduced the suicide rate: after war broke out in 1866 between Austria and Italy, the suicide rate fell by 14% in both countries.)
  • Suicide rates are higher in Scandinavian countries.
  • The higher the education level, the more likely it was that an individual would choose suicide. However, Durkheim established that there is more correlation between an individual’s religion and suicide rate than an individual’s education level.

Well, that is enough introduction. Let’s get on to the essay. (As usual, I will be using “” instead of blockquotes for Durkheim’s work.) I have excerpted what strikes me as the core of Durkheim’s argument:

“The really religious beliefs are always common to a determined group, which make profession of adhering to them and of practicing the rites connected with them. They are not merely received individually by all the members of this groups; they are something belonging to the group, and they make its unity. The individuals which compose it feel themselves united to each other by the simple fact that they have a common faith. A society whose members are united by the fact that they think the same way in regard to the sacred world and its relation with the profane world, and by the fact that they translate these common ideas into common practice, is what is called a “Church.””

EvX: Note that Durkheim is not limiting his use of “Church” to Christian denominations.

“In all history, we do not find a single religion without a Church. Sometimes the Church is strictly national, sometimes it passes frontiers; sometimes it embraces an entire people (Rome, Athens, the Hebrews), sometimes it embrace only part of them (the Christian societies since the advent of Protestantism), sometimes it is directed by a corps of priests, sometimes it is almost completely devoid of any official directing body. But wherever we observe the religious life, we find that it has a definite group as its foundation. …

“It is quite another matter with magic. To be sure, the belief in magic is always more or less general; it is very frequently diffused in large masses of the population, and there are even peoples where it has as many adherents as the real religion. But it does not result in binding together those who adhere to it, nor in uniting them into a group leading a common life. There is no Church of magic. Between the magician and the individuals who consult him, as between these individuals themselves, there are no lasting bods which make them members of the same moral community, comparable to that formed by the believers int he same god or the observers of the same cult. The magician has a clientele and not a Church, and it is very possible that his clients have no relations between each other, or even do not know each other; even the relations which they have with him are generally accidental and transient, they are just like those of a sick man with his physician. …

“Thus we arrive at the following definition: A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden–beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them. … by showing that the idea of religion is inseparable from that of the Church, it make it clear that religion should be an eminently collective thing.”

EvX: I find it interesting that all of the “social sciences”–anthropology, sociology, political economy, psychology, and possibly economics–became prominent at about the same time (compared to, say, History, which got its start with Herodotus in the 5th century BC.) As we’ve been discussing, the late 1800s was a time of great social turmoil due to the economic dislocations and changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution and mass movement of millions of peasants from their traditional homes in the countryside to ghettos and tenements of the cities.

Communism–most notably in its Marxist form–was one reaction to this dislocation.

Durkheim, while a socialist, was not an internationalist, and he seems to disagree pretty strongly with Karl “religion is the opiate of the masses” Marx on the importance of religion to society. To Durkheim, religion (as opposed to magic) was absolutely foundational to a functioning society, and believed that despite the increasing atheism of his age, nothing functionally similar to religion existed.

But–from an anthropological perspective–is Durkheim correct? Do the members of a “Church”–and note here the implication that for people to have this collective identity, there must be some homogenous thing that they all believe, not some hodgepodge of “individual interpretation–see themselves as a collective group, and do the believers in “magic,” inversely, fail to see themselves as similarly collective?

My personal experience with NeoPagans and the like suggests that they do see themselves as a collective thing, similar to other religions. So do, from what I have read, practitioners of Voodoo and perhaps other related animist religions. But these are modern (even “neo”!) beliefs, so perhaps these belief systems have been influenced by their practitioners’ familiarity with other “Churches.”

Wikipedia also notes:

Durkheim’s work on religion was criticized on both empirical and theoretical grounds by specialists in the field. The most important critique came from Durkheim’s contemporary, Arnold van Gennep, an expert on religion and ritual, and also on Australian belief systems. Van Gennep argued that Durkheim’s views of primitive peoples and simple societies were “entirely erroneous”. Van Gennep further argued that Durkheim demonstrated a lack of critical stance towards his sources, collected by traders and priests, naively accepting their veracity, and that Durkheim interpreted freely from dubious data. At the conceptual level, van Gennep pointed out Durkheim’s tendency to press ethnography into a prefabricated theoretical scheme.[84]

But perhaps we should let Durkheim defend his points.

Durkheim then runs through in the essay a couple of the more popular (atheistic) theories of his day on the origins of religion, such as “primitive man was amazed by nature and assumed therefore that natural phenomena must be the work of divine creatures,” and dismisses them on the grounds that they are inadequate to explain the fervency of people’s religious devotion. The fact that rain falls from the sky may be amazing, but even primitive man was not particularly wowed by this fairly regular and ultimately mundane occurrence.

(Personally, while I admire Durkheim’s quest for something deeper than “wow,” I think it might be adequate, at least when I look at the stars on a truly dark night. [Actually, I find being outside in true darkness with no lights and no other people pretty terrifying.])

Durkheim turns to Aboriginal “totemism,” deeming it the most “elementary religion,” from which animism and naturistic religions are derived:

“Finally, that which we propose to study in this work is the most primitive and simple religion which it is possible to find. … Not only is their civilization the most rudimentary–the house and even the hut are still unknown–but also their organization is the most primitive and simple which is actually known; it is that which we have elsewhere called organization on basis of clans. …

“At the basis of nearly all the Australian tribes we find a group which holds a preponderating place in the collective life: this is the clan. … the individuals who compose it consider themselves united by a band of kinship, but one which is of a very special nature. … This relationship does not come from the fact that they have definite blood connections with one another; they are relatives from the mere fact that they have the same name. … When we say that they regard themselves as a single family, we do so because they recognize duties toward each other which are identical with those which have always been incumbent upon kindred: such duties as aid, vengeance, mourning, the obligations not to marry  among themselves, etc.

“The species of things which serves to designate the clan collectively is its totem. The totem of the clan is also that of each of its members.”

So Durkheim goes on about totems for a while. Whether or not he is accurate I must leave to the experts–here is one take:


I note that as we discussed in Anthropology Friday: Aboriginal Folklore, William Ramsay Smith’s book  Aborigine Myths and Legends, published 1930 (that is, after Durkheim,) also discusses totems:

This totemism plays an important part in the social life of the aboriginals. If, for example, a person has committed an offense, or has broken tribal law, he becomes a fugitive. He may travel to some distant part of the country. … He creeps along stealthily, listening intently for any sound, peering through the dense foliage in every bay or cove to see whether his path is clear, noticing every footprint on the way, reading every mark on the tree-trunks and on the surface of rocks, and scanning every mark to see whether there is hope of protection and friendship. To be seen would mean death to him. By and by the keen eye of the fugitive catches sight of the figure of his mother’s totem. Casting aside all fear, he walks boldly along the beaten track that leads to the camp, and presents himself to the chief. He produces a string of kangaroo teeth, made in bead fashion, and a bunch of emu feathers… . This is a sign that he belongs to the Kangaroo totem tribe, and that his mother belongs to the Emu totem tribe. He is received into either of these tribes, and becomes one with them, and participates in all their privileges.

Ramsay recounts a number of folktales in which tribal membership (symbolized by the tribal totem) is important, including a number of tricksters tales in which a character cheats members of another tribe by claiming to be a member of their tribe via some ancient union between their peoples.

Totemism of some form was likely therefore important to at least some of the Aborigines. The totem itself operates, in my opinion a kind of flag (or mascot.) The totem represents the tribe and is carved on things to show that they belong to the tribe or to mark the tribe’s territory, just as a flag represents a country and marks the country’s territory. Likewise, just as tribes award their totem animals a kind of “sacred” status that makes eating (or breaking objects inscribed with their image) them taboo, so do most Americans abstain from eating bald eagles or destroying American flags (indeed, some people think that burning the American flag should be illegal!)

I must caution against overuse of the word “sacred.” For while we might not approve of hunting bald eagles for sport, we wouldn’t typically call bald eagles “sacred” in the religious sense.

Anyway, back to Durkheim:

“Thus the totem is before all a symbol, a material expression of something else. But of what?

“… it is the outward and visible form of what we have called the totemic principle or god. But it is also the symbol of the determined society called the clan. … if it is at once the symbol of the god and of the society, is that not because the god and the society are only one? … The god of the clan, the totemic principle, can therefore be nothing else than the clan itself, personified and presented to the imagination under the visible form of the animal or vegetable which serves as totem. …

“In fact, a god is, first of all, a being whom men think of as superior to themselves, and upon whom they feel that they depend. … the worshiper, in the one case as in the other, believes himself held to certain manners of acting which are imposed upon him by the nature of the sacred principle with which he feels he is in communion. Now society also gives us the sensation of a perpetual dependence. … It requires that, forgetful of our own interests, we make ourselves its servitors, and it submits us to every sort of inconvenience, privation, and sacrifice, without which social life would be impossible. …

“Since religious force is nothing other than the collective and anonymous force of the clan, and since this can be represented in the mind only in the form of the totem, the totemic emblem is like the visible body of the god. …

“We are now able to explain the origin of the ambiguity of religious forces as they appear in history… They are moral powers because they are made up entirely of the impressions this moral being, the group, arouses in those other moral beings, its individual members; they do not translate the manner in which physical thing affect our senses, but the way in which the collective consciousness acts upon individual consciousnesses. Their authority is only one from of the moral ascendancy of society over its members. … It is this double nature which has enabled religion to be like the womb from which come all the leading germs of human civilization.”

Evx: So, to summarize: the collective moral force of the community gives rise to the idea of the sacred, which creates religion, which in turn creates society, civilization, and all of the good things.

Which is circular, but so is gene-culture-co-evolution, so I suppose I can’t fault him on that count. The obvious critique here comes from religion: believers would likely object that their religion hails from an actual, real encounter between men and God(s). This explanation, though, runs into the difficulty of explaining all religions besides one’s own. Durkheim is attempting to create an explanation that applies equally to all religions, without appealing to any actual divine agents.

Leaving aside the reality of divinity, does Durkheim’s theory ring true? I am not convinced that he understands totemism, nor am I wholly convinced on the matter of magic, either. However, I his basic theory about the importance of religion underlying society, and possibly the importance of society underlying religion, seems on the correct track. Some form of common belief in the unity of the people of a society seems important to an actual society.

Let us suppose, for a moment, a society in which there are many ethnic groups, but they all believe in the same religion. This seems like a reasonably workable society where people can see themselves as having enough in common to work together. For example, Israel is a nation composed of many different ethnic groups which, nonetheless, all believe in Judaism and share an identity of themselves as “Jewish.” This works for them.

Let us also suppose a society with one ethnic group, but many religions. Since people prefer to marry within their own religion, creating the conditions for ethnic differentiation, we must suppose that the religions involved are sufficiently similar that people are still willing to inter-marry. This also seems like a reasonably workable society.

According to Pew, Taiwan and Vietnam are among the world’s most religiously diverse countries, but they are (as far as I know) ethnically quite homogenous. I confess that I don’t know much about civic life in Taiwan or Vietnam, but they seem to be holding together.

But suppose a third society, in which people belong to many different ethnic and religious groups: this seems in danger of becoming several different societies living in close proximity to each other.

The US is an interesting mix of forms. The initial founding stock consisted largely of Christians from northwest Europe and animists from Sub-Saharan Africa who quickly converted to Christianity. Most immigrants to the US have been Caucasian and/or Christian of some variety, eg, Mexicans, Quakers, Italians, Ashkenazim, Irish, Poles, and Puritans.

By contrast, when Malcolm X decided to convert to Islam, this was–at least symbolically–a way of breaking from the religious continuity of American Christianity. As a black separatist, he was no longer linked to white American society.

Personally, I don’t think it’s a big deal for a country to have small groups of disparate peoples within their borders. A few Buddhists or followers of traditional Native American religions aren’t hurting me. But large groups of people who see themselves as having nothing in common with each other seem problematic to the large-scale functioning of civic life in a nation, especially a democracy. (Might be just fine in an empire.)



Entropy, Life, and Welfare (pt 1)


(This is Part 1. Part 2 and Part 3 are here.)

All living things are basically just homeostatic entropy reduction machines. The most basic cell, floating in the ocean, uses energy from sunlight to order its individual molecules, creating, repairing, and building copies of itself, which continue the cycle. As Jeremy England of MIT demonstrates:

From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms: The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat. Jeremy England … has derived a mathematical formula that he believes explains this capacity. The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. …

This class of systems includes all living things. England then determined how such systems tend to evolve over time as they increase their irreversibility. “We can show very simply from the formula that the more likely evolutionary outcomes are going to be the ones that absorbed and dissipated more energy from the environment’s external drives on the way to getting there,” he said. …

“This means clumps of atoms surrounded by a bath at some temperature, like the atmosphere or the ocean, should tend over time to arrange themselves to resonate better and better with the sources of mechanical, electromagnetic or chemical work in their environments,” England explained.

Self-replication (or reproduction, in biological terms), the process that drives the evolution of life on Earth, is one such mechanism by which a system might dissipate an increasing amount of energy over time. As England put it, “A great way of dissipating more is to make more copies of yourself.” In a September paper in the Journal of Chemical Physics, he reported the theoretical minimum amount of dissipation that can occur during the self-replication of RNA molecules and bacterial cells, and showed that it is very close to the actual amounts these systems dissipate when replicating.

usenergy2009Energy isn’t just important to plants, animals, and mitochondria. Everything from molecules to sand dunes, cities and even countries absorb and dissipate energy. And like living things, cities and countries use energy to grow, construct buildings, roads, water systems, and even sewers to dispose of waste. Just as finding food and not being eaten are an animal’s first priority, so are energy policy and not being conquered are vital to a nation’s well-being.

Hunter-gatherer societies are, in most environments, the most energy-efficient–hunter gatherers expend relatively little energy to obtain food and build almost no infrastructure, resulting in a fair amount of time left over for leisure activities like singing, dancing, and visiting with friends.

But as the number of people in a group increases, hunter-gathering cannot scale. Putting in more hours hunting or gathering can only increase the food supply so much before you simply run out.

energyvsorganizationHorticulture and animal herding require more energy inputs–hoeing the soil, planting, harvesting, building fences, managing large animals–but create enough food output to support more people per square mile than hunter-gathering.

Agriculture requires still more energy, and modern industrial agriculture more energy still, but support billions of people. Agricultural societies produced history’s first cities–civilizations–and (as far as I know) its first major collapses. Where the land is over-fished, over-farmed, or otherwise over-extracted, it stops producing and complex systems dependent on that production collapse.

Senenu, an Egyptian scribe, grinding grain by hand, ca. 1352-1336 B.C
Senenu, an Egyptian scribe, grinding grain by hand, ca. 1352-1336 B.C

I’ve made a graph to illustrate the relationship between energy input (work put into food production) and energy output (food, which of course translates into more people.) Note how changes in energy sources have driven our major “revolutions”–the first, not in the graph, was the taming and use of fire to cook our food, releasing more nutrients than mere chewing ever could. Switching from jaw power to fire power unlocked the calories necessary to fund the jump in brain size that differentiates humans from our primate cousins, chimps and gorillas.

That said, hunter gatherers (and horticulturalists) still rely primarily on their own power–foot power–to obtain their food.

Scheme of the Roman Hierapolis sawmill, the earliest known machine to incorporate a crank and connecting rod mechanism.
Scheme of the Roman Hierapolis sawmill, the earliest known machine to incorporate a crank and connecting rod mechanism. Note the use of falling water to perform the work, rather than human muscles.

The Agricultural Revolution harnessed the power of animals–mainly horses and oxen–to drag plows and grind grain. The Industrial Revolution created engines and machines that released the power of falling water, wind, steam, coal, and oil, replacing draft animals with grist mills, tractors, combines, and trains.

Modern industrial societies have achieved their amazing energy outputs–allowing us to put a man on the moon and light up highways at night–via a massive infusion of energy, principally fossil fuels, vital to the production of synthetic fertilizers:

Nitrogen fertilizers are made from ammonia (NH3), which is sometimes injected into the ground directly. The ammonia is produced by the Haber-Bosch process.[5] In this energy-intensive process, natural gas (CH4) supplies the hydrogen, and the nitrogen (N2) is derived from the air. …

Deposits of sodium nitrate (NaNO3) (Chilean saltpeter) are also found in the Atacama desert in Chile and was one of the original (1830) nitrogen-rich fertilizers used.[12] It is still mined for fertilizer.[13]

Actual mountain of corn
Actual mountain of corn, because industrial agriculture is just that awesome

Other fertilizers are made of stone, mined from the earth, shipped, and spread on fields, all courtesy of modern industrial equipment, run on gasoline.

Without the constant application of fertilizer, we wouldn’t have these amazing crop yields:

In 2014, average yield in the United States was 171 bushels per acre. (And the world record is an astonishing 503 bushels, set by a farmer in Valdosta, Ga.) Each bushel weighs 56 pounds and each pound of corn yields about 1,566 calories. That means corn averages roughly 15 million calories per acre. (Again, I’m talking about field corn, a.k.a. dent corn, which is dried before processing. Sweet corn and popcorn are different varieties, grown for much more limited uses, and have lower yields.)

per-capita-world-energy-by-sourceAs anyone who has grown corn will tell you, corn is a nutrient hog; all of those calories aren’t free. Corn must be heavily fertilized or the soil will run out and your farm will be worthless.

We currently have enough energy sources that the specific source–fossil fuels, hydroelectric, wind, solar, even animal–is not particularly important, at least for this discussion. Much more important is how society uses and distributes its resources. For, like all living things, a society that misuses its resources will collapse.

To be continued…Go on to Part 2 and Part 3.


Why do people watch so much TV?

Honestly, left to my own devices, I wouldn’t own a TV. (With Mythbusters canceled, what’s the point anymore?)

Don’t get me wrong. I have watched (and even enjoyed) the occasional sitcom. I’ve even tried watching football. I like comedies. They’re funny. But after they end, I get that creeping feeling of emptiness inside, like when you’ve eaten a bowl of leftover Halloween candy instead of lunch. There is no “meat” to these programs–or vegan-friendly vegetable protein, if you prefer.

I do enjoy documentaries, though I often end up fast-forwarding through large chunks of them because they are full of filler shots of rotating galaxies or astronomers parking their telescopes or people… taalkiiing… sooo… sloooowwwwlllly… And sadly, if you’ve seen one documentary about ancient Egypt, you’ve seen them all.

Ultimately, time is a big factor: I am always running short. Once I’m done with the non-negotiables (like “take care of the kids” and “pay the bills,”) there’s only so much time left, and time spent watching TV is time not spent writing. Since becoming a competent writer is one of my personal goals, TV gets punted to the bottom of the list, slightly below doing the dishes.

Obviously not everyone writes, but I have a dozen other backup projects for when I’m not writing, everything from “read more books” to “volunteer” to “exercise.”

I think it is a common fallacy to default to assuming that other people are like oneself. I default to assuming that other people are time-crunched, running on 8 shots of espresso and trying to cram in a little time to read Tolstoy and get the tomatoes planted before they fall asleep. (And I’m not even one of those Type-A people.)

Obviously everyone isn’t like me. They come home from work, take care of their kids, make dinner, and flip on the TV.


An acquaintance recently made a sad but illuminating comment regarding their favorite TV shows, “I know they’re not real, but it feels like they are. It’s like they’re my friends.”

I think the simple answer is that we process the pictures on the TV as though they were real. TV people look like people and sound like people, so who cares if they don’t smell like people? Under normal (pre-TV) circumstances, if you hung out with some friendly, laughing people every day in your living room, they were your family. You liked them, they liked you, and you were happy together.

Today, in our atomized world of single parents, only children, spinsters and eternal bachelors, what families do we have? Sure, we see endless quantities of people on our way to work, but we barely speak, nod, or glance at each other, encapsulated within our own cars or occupied with checking Facebook on our cellphones while the train rumbles on.

As our connections to other people have withered away, we’ve replaced them with fake ones.

Google “America’s Favorite Family“:

OZZIE & HARRIET: The Adventures of America’s Favorite Family

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was the first and longest-running family situational comedy in television history. The Nelsons came to represent the idealized American family of the 1950s – where mom was a content homemaker, dad’s biggest decision was whether to give his sons the keys to the car, and the boys’ biggest problem was getting a date to the high school prom. …When it premiered, Ozzie & Harriet: The Adventures of America’s Favorite Family was the highest-rated documentary in A&E’s history.

(According to Wikipedia, Ozzie and Harriet started on the radio back in the 30s, got a comedy show (still on radio) in 1944, and were on TV from 1952-1966.) It was, to some extent, about a real family–the actors in the show were an actual husband and wife + their kids, but the show itself was fictionalized.

It even makes sense to people to ask them, “Who is your favorite TV personality?“–to which the most common answer isn’t Adam Savage or James Hyneman, but Mark Harmon, who plays some made-up guy named Leroy Jethro Gibbs.

The rise of “reality TV” only makes the “people want to think of the TV people as real people they’re actually hanging out with” all the more palpable–and then there’s the incessant newsstand harping of celebrity gossip. The only thing I want out of a movie star (besides talent) is that I not recognize them; it appears that the only thing everyone else wants is that they do recognize them.

According to The Way of the Blockbuster: In entertainment, big bets on likely winners rule:

in Blockbusters: Hit-Making, Risk-Taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment, the new book by Anita Elberse, Filene professor of business administration. Elberse (el-BER-see) spent 10 years interviewing and observing film, television, publishing, and sports executives to distill the most profitable strategy for these high-profile, unpredictable marketplaces. … The most profitable business strategy, she says, is not the “long tail,” but its converse: blockbusters like Star Wars, Avatar, Friends, the Harry Potter series, and sports superstars like Tom Brady.

Strategically, the blockbuster approach involves “making disproportionately big investments in a few products designed to appeal to mass audiences,” … “Production value” means star actors and special effects. … a studio can afford only a few “event movies” per year. But Horn’s big bets for Warner Brothers—the Harry Potter series, The Dark Knight, The Hangover and its sequel, Ocean’s Eleven and its two sequels, Sherlock Holmes—drew huge audiences. By 2011, Warner became the first movie studio to surpass $1 billion in domestic box-office receipts for 11 consecutive years. …

Jeff Zucker ’86 put a contrasting plan into place as CEO at NBC Universal. In 2007 he led a push to cut the television network’s programming costs: … Silverman began cutting back on expensive dramatic content, instead acquiring rights to more reasonably priced properties; eschewing star actors and prominent TV producers, who commanded hefty fees; and authorizing fewer costly pilots for new series. The result was that by 2010, NBC was no longer the top-rated TV network, but had fallen to fourth place behind ABC, CBS, and Fox, and “was farther behind on all the metrics that mattered,” writes Elberse, “including, by all accounts, the profit margins Zucker and Silverman had sought most.” Zucker was asked to leave his job in 2010. …

From a business perspective, “bankable” movies stars like Julia Roberts, Johnny Depp, or George Clooney function in much the way Harry Potter and Superman do: providing a known, well-liked persona.

So people like seeing familiar faces in their movies (except Oprah Winfrey, who is apparently not a draw:

the 1998 film Beloved, starring Oprah Winfrey, based on Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison’s eponymous 1987 novel and directed by Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme … flopped resoundingly: produced for $80 million, it sold only $23 million in tickets.

Or maybe Beloved isn’t just the kind of feel-good action flick that drives movie audiences the way Batman is.)

But what about sports?

Here I am on even shakier ground than sitcoms. I can understand playing sports–they’re live action versions of video games, after all. You get to move around, exercise, have fun with your friends, and triumphantly beat them at something. (Or if you’re me, lose.) I can understand cheering for your kids and being proud of them as they get better and better at some athletic skill (or at least try hard at it.)

I don’t understand caring about strangers playing a game.

I have no friends on the Yankees or the Mets, the Phillies or the Marlins. I’ve never met a member of the Alabama Crimson Tide or the Clemson Tigers, and I harbor no illusions that my children will ever play on such teams. I feel no loyalty to the athletes-drawn-from-all-over-the-country who play on my “hometown” team, and I consider athlete salaries vaguely obscene.

I find televised sports about as interesting as watching someone do math. If the point of the game is to win, then why not just watch a 5-minute summary at the end of the day of all the teams’ wins and losses?

But according to The Way of the Blockbuster:

Perhaps no entertainment realm takes greater care in building a brand name than professional sports: fan loyalty reliably builds repeat business. “The NFL is blockbuster content,” Elberse says. “It’s the most sought-after content we have in this country. Four of the five highest-rated television shows [in the United States] ever are Super Bowls. NFL fans spend an average of 9.5 hours per week on games and related content. That gives the league enormous power when it comes to negotiating contracts with television networks.”

Holy shit. No wonder Borders went under.

Elberse has studied American football and basketball and European soccer, and found that selling pro sports has much in common with selling movies, TV shows, or books. Look at the Real Madrid soccer club—the world’s richest, with annual revenues of $693 million and a valuation of $3.3 billion. Like Hollywood studios, Real Madrid attracts fan interest by engaging superstars—such as Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese forward the club acquired from Manchester United for a record $131.6 million in 2009. “We think of ourselves as content producers,” a Real Madrid executive told Elberse, “and we think of our product—the match—as a movie.” As she puts it: “It might not have Tom Cruise in it, but they do have Cristiano Ronaldo starring.

In America, sports stars are famous enough that even I know some of their names, like Peyton Manning, Serena Williams, and Michel Jackson Jordan.

I think the basic drive behind people’s love of TV sports is the same as their love of sitcoms (and dramas): they process it as real. And not just real, but as people they know: their family, their tribe. Those are their boys out there, battling for glory and victory against that other tribes’s boys. It’s vicarious warfare with psuedo armies, a domesticated expression of the tribal urge to slaughter your enemies, drive off their cattle and abduct their women. So what if the army isn’t “real,” if the heroes aren’t your brother or cousin but paid gladiators shipped in from thousands of miles away to perform for the masses? Your brain still interprets it as though it were; you still enjoy it.

Football is man-fiction.

Why is Star Wars more popular than God?

I’m not a Star Wars fan.

I don’t hate it; I don’t love it. I’m normally quite agnostic on the subject.

I don’t begrudge people having favorite movies; I have favorite movies. I don’t begrudge them sharing their favorites with their kids (though it will be quite a few years before my kids appreciate any of the movies that I like,) nor do I look askance at movie-themed products (those Frozen-middle grade novels strike me as a cute idea.)

But when I see moms dressing their infants in Darth Vader onesies, I think society has gotten really, really weird.

Target is filled with mountain of Star Wars crap, much of it regular products with a Star Wars logo slapped on. Fuzzy infant socks with a tiny picture of Yoda’s head on the side; beer holders and bouncy balls and ugly sweaters.

I’m not judging the sweaters; they’re advertised as “ugly sweaters.” (Why would anyone purposefully spend money on an “ugly sweater”?)

I can’t get to the diaper section without feeling like my soul is being crushed beneath the mountains of useless crap produced solely so we can buy it, wrap it up, and exchange it for someone else’s box of worthless crap in imitation of ritual.

And Jacob sod pottage: and Esau came from the field, and he was faint:30 And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint: therefore was his name called Edom.31 And Jacob said, Sell me this day thy birthright.32 And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me?

33 And Jacob said, Swear to me this day; and he sware unto him: and he sold his birthright unto Jacob.

34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentiles; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright.

At least you can eat lentils. How much have we sacrificed for this pile of crap?

70% of American adults claim to be “Christians;” that drops to only 56% among “Young Millenials” (folks 19-25 years old.) But parents are disproportionately religious, which probably explains why, according to le Wik, “62 percent of children say religion is important to them, 26 percent say it’s somewhat important, and 13 percent say it’s not important.”

Interestingly, on a related note:

From Faith in the Family: How belief passes from one generation to the next
From Faith in the Family: How belief passes from one generation to the next

According to Vern Bengston’s research, Jews and Mormons are particularly good at passing on their religious beliefs to their children. He credits this to these religions’ intergenerational focus and household rituals. Part of it is probably also the fact that these religions are still focused on having children, and religion is pointless without children. If you’re looking for a religion to raise your kids in and have no particular preference of your own, Mormonism or Judaism might be the ticket.

Bengston also finds that a major influence on a child’s likelihood of adopting their parents’ religion is how good the relationship is between them and their parents, particularly their father:

From Faith and the Family: How religious belief passes from one generation to the next
From Faith and the Family: How belief passes from one generation to the next

If your dad’s a jerk, you’re likely to reject his beliefs. (Does this mean divorce is driving the increase in atheism?)

At any rate, no matter how you slice it, over half of parents–and children–claim to be Christian.

What percent of people are Star Wars fans?

One amusing study found that 4.8% of Alaskans “liked” Star Wars on Facebook. Alaskans appear to be the biggest Star Wars fans, followed by WA, OR, and Utah. Star Wars has the lowest % of likes down in the Deep South. In other words, English and German-descended folks like Star Wars.

I always groan a little when someone produces a map of ethnicity without realizing it.
(I always groan a little when someone produces a map of ethnicity without realizing it:

The "Americans" are mostly Scottish/Irish
Note the very high quantity of English in Utah and Maine, vs their relative absence in the Deep South [highly black] and MA/RI/Conn/NJ [Irish, Italians.])
A Facebook Poll asked people to list their favorite books; while Harry Potter came in first, 7.2% of people listed the Bible.

Obviously this is not a good way of comparing affection for Star Wars to affection to the Bible, but having interacted with people, 7% feels rather close to the actual percentage of real Christians.

There’s always a chicken and egg dynamic to marketing and advertising. How much of the crush of Star Wars merchandise is driven by actual demand, and how much is everyone just buying Star Wars crap because there happens to be an enormous pile of it?

There’s another thing that makes me uncomfortable: this notion that Star Wars somehow reflects my culture. Or as an acquaintance claimed this morning, “The Big Bang Theory.” For the sake of this post, dear readers, I have ventured into the nether reaches of YouTube and watched The Big Bang Theory highlight reels (I can’t seem to find any full episodes; probably a copyright thing.)

The Big Bang Theory is not my culture. (You may have noticed a distinct lack of Batman jokes on this blog.) Neither is Star Wars. Yes, some nerds like Star Wars, but we are not the people who motivated Target to stock enormous piles of Star Wars merchandise. I have nothing personal against these franchises, but I recoil against the claim that they have anything to do with my culture.

At any rate, no one is stopping you from buying a Veggie Tales DVD (Amazon has a ton of Veggie Tales free for instant streaming if you have Prime membership; there are also a bunch on Netflix,) or Queen Esther action figure, Bible Heroes trading cards or Anarchy in the Monarchy card game–no, wait, the last one is just funny, not religious.

I’ve never understood why, but the average “Christian” parent won’t buy any of that. Perhaps their kids just don’t want religious toys (though I would have loved ’em.) Perhaps my Christian friend was telling the honest truth when they said, “No one likes a Jesus freak.” Maybe most “Christians” are less devout than I am (which is really saying something, since I’m an atheist.) Maybe the folks who decide which products will be carried at major stores aren’t interested in religiously-oriented items, and everyone else just goes along, sheep-like, with whatever they see. I don’t really know.

But if you care about passing on your faith, consider abandoning the materialistic deluge and spend some quality time with your kids instead. Even if you don’t care about faith, I still recommend that. If you don’t have kids, substitute the loved ones you have. They’re worth a lot more than a Yoda-shaped mug.

The neighbors don’t use trash pickup: the cellular automata of ethnic competition

I’ve noticed that the neighbors don’t put out their trash can on trash day. At first I thought nothing of it; perhaps they just hadn’t put their can out yet, or had accidentally slept through trash pickup. I don’t normally devote too much thought to the neighbors’ trash habits, but somehow, their cans never seemed to be out.

Last week, I witnessed them piling a mountain of trashbags into a truck. This week, again, no trash can.

It is technically legal, and cheaper, to not pay for trash pickup and instead pay a small fee to deposit your trash directly at the dump. So the neighbors are storing up a month or two’s worth of trash in their garage and then hauling it to the dump.

This is (or was) a nice neighborhood. Low crime, good schools, modern infrastructure, nice houses.

Now one of the other neighbors has been complaining to me that he’s concerned about rats coming from that house to his house.

I’ve heard a lot of complaints about this household, generally from other neighbors. Noisy, late-night parties. Guests who pee in other people’s bushes. Litter. Parking disputes (thankfully, not with me.) Mundanities that you have to put up with if you’re living around other humans. But this is a bit much.

So what to do? Call up the HOA and demand that they pass a resolution mandating that people pay for trash pickup? (Can the HOA even do that?) I don’t actually like the idea of getting the HOA to regulate the minutia of other people’s behavior, but then, I’ve never had a neighbor opt to keep giant piles of trash in their house instead of pay for trash pickup.

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because I happened to highlight trash-related behaviors back in “Increasing Diversity => Fascism.” I’d call this a coincidence, but I suspect that disputes over proper trash disposal are actually very common.

I’m just glad we’re renting, so it’s not my money going down the drain–no, my money did that elsewhere. We cut our losses and got out shortly after the home invasions started and I found used drug needles on the playground. So we decided to pay extra, this time, for a nicer neighborhood, somewhere clean and safe.

So much for clean.

Why would anyone who can’t afford trash pickup live in this neighborhood? There are cheaper-but-still-nice neighborhoods nearby.

The answer is probably the obvious one. People who live on million-dollar estates on islands accessible only by ferry, who happily talk about how the cost of the ferry ride “keeps out the riff-raff,” vote for policies that move people from ghettos to middle-class neighborhoods.


This all gets back to competition, the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and ethnicity.

You and I are in competition.

If it’s any consolation, we’re also in competition with pretty much everyone on Earth. Each of us, whether consciously or not, is attempting to secure resources for ourselves and our progeny.

The easiest person to conquer is your neighbor.

You are unlikely to care terribly much about the behavior of someone living across the country, or even across the state. If some guy a thousand miles away from you is storing up a pile of trash, well, that’s weird, but it doesn’t affect you. If your neighbor is storing up a pile of trash, suddenly it starts looking like your business.

Most violence is committed against people known to the attacker, or members of their own community. Most wars are waged against a country’s immediate neighbors. And if I can’t conquer my neighbors, perhaps I can ally with someone from far away–someone not an immediate threat to me–to conquer them.

The easiest way to get people to stop fighting with their neighbors and band together for the common good is to confront them with an even bigger, credible threat from further away. England and France finally managed to ally when confronted with Germany; if space aliens invaded tomorrow, I bet most countries on earth would forget their nationalistic squabbles pretty darn quickly.

But as long as there isn’t a bigger, credible threat, then stealing my neighbor’s resources can lead to my own success. And pretty soon, we’re back to squabbling.

In other words, getting people to cooperate instead of defect is pretty tough.

Indeed, a great percent of ethnic conflicts are phrased along the lines of, “My people are great and virtuous cooperators who bend over backwards for other groups of people, but your people are dastardly defectors who are taking advantage of our naive goodwill!” And for good reason–if you can consistently defect against someone who consistently cooperates, you’ll do really well for yourself.

Society can only function if people cooperate, but short-term interests are benefitted by defection. Why put in all of the effort to engage in trade when you can let other people do trade and then mug them? Society therefore has a strong incentive to punish defection–if society can actually identify it.

We’ve gotten into the habit of attempting to prove that we are great cooperators by accusing others of defecting–ironically, defecting against them in the process.

Most whites are in direct competition–for jobs, popularity, and mates–with other whites. Lower class (and some middle class) whites are also in competition with blacks and Hispanic immigrants. High class whites are not.

When low class whites complain about black behavior, it sounds to high class whites like defection–or as we more commonly put it, racism. When high class whites say so, this sounds like defection to the low class whites–especially when they believe the blacks defected on them first. (And the blacks, of course, will inform you that the whites defected on them first.)

When whites move out of neighborhoods as blacks move in, it looks an awful lot to elites like defection. When elites make sanctimonious noises about the evils of “white flight,” this sounds like defection to the whites whose property values were destroyed as crime and trash–in the literal sense–invaded their neighborhoods. And when whites attempt to keep prospective black buyers out of neighborhoods (or drive them out after they’ve moved in,) this looks like defection, too.

Society needs a better way to determine who is and isn’t defecting.


Feminism is a status game

I’ve posted before about my theory that feminism is about high-status people vs. low-status men.

I was thinking today a bit more about status.

Now, there exist feminist concerns that are not status-oriented, such as rape and assault. Feminism is vast; it contains multitudes. We will lay these aside for the moment to focus on status.

One of the things that makes me distrustful of feminism is the way extended family members attempt to use it to create marital discord between my husband and myself in order to get their way during disputes. Advertising does this, too, so I’ll use an example from advertising.

Family harmony and functioning require that husbands and wives agree on how the family’s money is spent, and that neither spouse spends recklessly or excessively. It is often simplest if one spouse has primary responsibility for setting the budget, paying the bills, etc. Sometimes, as in Japan, this is primarily the women; sometimes it is primarily the men. These arrangements are pure necessity: budgetary disorganization or reckless spending lead to financial problems like the electricity bill not getting paid.

Feminism promotes the idea that women should be in control of their own finances, which has been picked up by the advertising industry and promoted as the idea that spending money on whatever the hell you want is an act of female empowerment because you are defying your evil, patriarchal husband’s demands that you stick to a reasonable budget. You deserve it! (whatever “it” is.)

To be fair, advertisers do the exact same thing to men, albeit with slightly different language. You deserve a break today! A Big Mac! Cigarettes! Cars! Whatever it is, it isn’t some unneeded luxury advertisers for which are trying to convince you to fork over your hard-won budget dollars, but something you fundamentally deserve to have.

I get this a lot. “You deserve new clothes!” No, my current clothes are just fine; I am not dressed in rags. I buy new clothes when I need them and spend discretionary budget money on books, games, and other things for the children.

“You deserve a night out! Let’s go downtown and socialize with strangers!” No, I have no particular desire to act like a 20-something singleton cruising the bars. I certainly do not “deserve” to have someone else watch over my kids for me. Nor do I “deserve” to go to a restaurant; food is food. There is no sense in paying extra just so I can eat it outside my house.

“You deserve a vacation!” Fuck no. I hate travel.

“You deserve to sit in the front of the car instead of the back!” I sit in the back so I can supervise the distribution of ketchup packets when we get french fries. This is not a goddam status competition; I just want to make sure ketchup doesn’t go everywhere.

“You are not doing X that I want you to do! It must be because of your husband! He is poisoning you against me! You need to stop letting him boss you around! Stand up to him and let him know you are doing X because you deserve it, girl!”

At this point, I’m like OMFG, let’s just bring back patriarchy and then I can just redirect all of this bullshit at my husband and be like, “Sorry, I don’t make those decisions, that’s his department, so sorry, can’t help you at all! Bye-bye!” Okay, maybe that would be cruel to him, but it would at least spare me.

But none of these decisions were made because of political or patriarchal leanings. They’re all things we decided because they made practical sense for us to do them that way, or because I happen to have a personal preference in that department. The attempt to use feminist arguments a a wedge to make me spend more money or otherwise do things I dislike is, ultimately, an attempt to poison marital harmony by setting me against my husband.

But let’s get back to status.

Status is a shitty game. Chances are, you’ll lose; for 99.999% or so of people, there’s always someone higher status than themselves. Sure, you might have been good at sports in highschool, but in college you discovered that you suck and hundreds of people are much better than you. You might have been good at math in middle school, but come college, you discover that you do not have what it takes to get a degree in math. Or maybe you were skilled enough to get a degree in art, only to discover that people like you are a dime a gross and eating beans out of cans.

It is extremely hard in our modern world to be tops in any industry. It is hard to be tops in your neighborhood. It is hard to be tops in your church. It is hard to be top anything, anywhere, period.

Now rewind your clock to 1900 or so. Most people lived in small, rural farming communities, in which most people had the exact same occupation: farmer. “Status” in your community was directly tied to your ability to be a good farmer, or if you were a woman, a good farm wife. Do you plow your fields well? Work hard? Get the harvest in on time? Treat your neighbors decently and not stumble home drunk in the evenings? Then you were probably regarded as a “good” farmer and had reasonable status in your community. Did you keep the house clean, tend the garden, mend the clothe, watch the children, cook good meals, and preserve food for the winter? Then you were a “good” farm wife.

It’s a hard life, but they were tasks that mere mortals could aspire to do well, and whatever your status, it was obviously derived from the physical execution of your duties. You can’t fake getting in the harvest or cooking a good meal.

I reject–based on lack of evidence–the theory that 1800s farming societies viewed women derrogatorily. Farmsteads could not function without their female members (just as they could not function without men), and farm families spent long hours with no one but each other for company. Under these circumstances, I suspect that people generally valued and appreciated each other’s contributions, rather than engage in dumb fights over whether or not women were good at plowing.

Then came industrialization. People moved off the farms and into cities. Factory work replaced plowing.

While there are bad factory workers, there are no great ones. Working harder or faster than your fellows on the factory line does not result in better widgets or superior performance reviews, because the entire factory is designed to work at the exact same pace. Working faster or slower simply doesn’t work.

Factory work is, in many respects, more pleasant than farm work. It is less labor-intensive, you don’t have to shovel manure, you don’t have to work in inclement weather, and you’re less likely to starve to death due to inclement weather.

But there are many critiques arguing that factory work is inhuman (in the literal sense) and soul-deadening. The factory worker is little more than a flesh-and-blood robot, repeatedly performing a single function.

The farmer may look upon a stack of hay or newborn calf and feel pride in the work of his hands; the farm wife may look likewise on the food stacked in her cellar or her healthy children. But the factory worker has nothing he can point to and say, “I made this.” Factory work levels everyone into one great big undifferentiated mass.

War is perhaps the exception to this rule; those who band together to build tanks and planes to save their homelands do seem to feel great pride in their work. But merely making flip-flops or cellphones does not carry this kind of noble sentiment.

Outside of war, the factory worker has little status, and that he has is determined almost entirely by what others wish to pay him. There are therefore two ways for the factory worker to gain status: the country can go to war, or the worker can get a better-paying job.

Women have generally opted for “better jobs” over “more wars.”

Questions like “Why aren’t there more women in STEM?” or more generally, “Why aren’t there more women in profession X?” along with all the questions about equal pay all seem predicated on a quest for higher status, or at least on the idea that if women aren’t equal in any field, it’s a sign of people devaluing women (rather than, say, women just not being particularly interested in that field.)

Theory: the inverse relationship between warfare and homicide

That whole myth about hunter-gatherers being peaceful and non-violent probably got its start because hunter-gatherers tend not to be as good at organized warfare as the Germans.

Homicide is an act of disorganized impulsive passion; warfare is an act of organized dispassion; the two are inverse of each other. Thus we see the highest homicide rates in the world’s least developed countries, and the lowest rates in its most developed countries.



Note that it is not an absolutely perfect correlation; many Latin American or Caribbean countries have higher homicide rates than even less-developed countries in Africa, but broadly speaking, the pinks and reds are poorer than the blues. (Russia excepted, ‘cuz Russia.)

Also, as you may recall:

sp-Slide013 homicide_in_europe_1200_2000

Share of violent deaths, non-state societies vs. state societies
Share of violent deaths, non-state societies vs. state societies

Countries involved in the world’s biggest wars:




Nuclear stockpiles or programs by country:


(South Africa used to have nukes, but they got rid of them before the end of Apartheid.)

Here’s another graph that makes the size of the arsenals clear:

Source: SMTKS
Source: SMTKS

And here’s another graph that says about the same thing, but is a wonderful example of how to display data:

Source: SMNTKS
Source: SMNTKS

I’m pretty sure this graph means we’re all going to die.

And likewise, space programs by country:


Also a nicely done graphic.

You might have heard about India’s space program:

Test launch of India's GSLV Mk III
Test launch of India’s GSLV Mk III

But have you heard of the Congolese space program?

To be fair, it’s more “One guy with a rocket-building hobby” than a real space program, but I understand where he’s coming from. Rockets are cool.

The point of all of these maps and graphs is that homicide rates tend to be highest, both today and throughout history, in the places with the lowest levels of social organization/complexity.

Even in our own society, convicted criminals are overwhelmingly lacking in the ability to handle complexity. It looks like they aren’t really all that much more retarded (note: PDF) than the general population (the truly intellectually impaired are often pretty highly supervised and lack the ability to execute many crimes, but are often victims of violence,) but they are drawn disproportionately from the dumber half.

According to respondents in the forum thread “Cops and Lawyers – What percent of criminals/clients are retarded?” (Note: I know nothing about this forum or its reliability)

“Not retarded per se. My personal experience is most criminals stopped developing emotionally at about 3 or 4. They live life for the moment, think only of themselves, have no impulse control, can’t control their emotions, throw temper tantrums when they don’t get their way, can’t think past the next 10 minutes, don’t understand consequence, etc……. They are basically little children in adult bodies. Of course, most 3 or 4 year olds are better behaved than the average criminal, but you get the point.”

“I found that better than 90% of them were functionally illiterate, so when they say reading is fundamental, they aren’t kidding!”

“With the advent of welfare, it became profitable to squirt out children.It relegated men to the status of semen injectors. No men, no fathering. down the spiral 40 odd years and we’ve got multiple generations of female children “raising” children.
The results aren’t retarded, they are more like Comanches or Lakota, they have regressed several thousand years.
It is painful to watch good officers try to “reach” these kids. Watching with an unsympathetic eye, it is plain that most of these kids don’t even understand what the officers are talking about.
That’s the brutal truth that no one wants to face. These kids aren’t just lost-they are damned in our society.”
Recall our discussion back in Two Kinds of Dumb–just because someone has a low IQ, doesn’t mean they are retarded. But anyone who is illiterate (in our society) with the emotional maturity of a 3 or 4 your old is not very bright or capable of thinking through the results of their own actions.
The art of killing large numbers of people, by contrast, requires organization. One guy with a pointy stick might kill a few dozen guys who don’t have pointy sticks, but one guy who convince a thousand other guys to stand next to you with their pointy sticks, and you get this:
Source: Chapleton
The Romans didn’t conquer an empire by poking barbarians with pointy sticks; they did it by organizing themselves into an unstoppable war machine.
Armies do not generally fund themselves; they depend upon a vast support structure producing weapons, food, transportation, shelter, technology, etc. The bigger the army and more advanced the weaponry, the bigger the support structure has to be. Nukes take far more people to produce than pointy sticks, from the farmers making the food to feed the scientists working out the details to the structural engineers building the research labs to the guys building the rockets or planes to drop the bombs.
Complex organization requires large numbers of people working in close proximity without punching each other; it requires that people be able to suppress their own personal desires in pursuit of the group goal. All of this requires being less violent, less impulsive, and less inclined toward murdering each other.

Increasing Diversity => Fascism: the difficulty of enforcing social norms via rules

I was recently reading a series of messageboard exchanges on the topic of increased integration of suburban neighborhoods, in which one person happily opined about the benefits of increased Section 8 housing in her neighborhood, and that any fears about declining home values could be solved by simply having stronger HOAs that enforced more rules.

And people call me aspie.

There are two major reasons why this is a bad strategy:

  1. Laws are, at best, an imperfect approximation of social norms; more laws => less freedom
  2. Disparate Impact

Let’s start with #1.

Most social norms are “unstated,” general rules of thumb that people understand almost intuitively, and apply with a fair amount of nuance. Failure to understand social nuance is annoying at best and a major symptom of certain mental disabilities; people who cannot understand social nuance are basically handicapped in social situations. The more rules are unstated, the worse off they are.

When two cultural groups mix, individuals often run into confusion due to having different cultural norms. In some cases these are easily worked out–just remember to take your shoes off when you arrive at your Chinese friend’s home–and in some cases they can’t be. If I think looking people in the eyes is rude, and you think not looking people in the eyes is rude, then we are going to have a conflict.

But let’s take an example that might actually come under an HOA’s jurisdiction. Let’s say you live in a community of about 100 households. The vast majority of the time–199 out of 2oo days, to be exact–everyone in the neighborhood takes their trash to the dumpsters, where it belongs. But 1 out of 200 days, each person has some unexpected thing come up–sickness, broken foot, whatever–and they leave a bag of trash out on their porch overnight. As such, even though everyone in the community agrees “people should not leave bags of trash on their porches at night, because rats,” every other night, there will be one bag of trash out on a porch somewhere in the neighborhood.

Then a new guy arrives. New Guy looks around, sees the bags of trash, and decides it must be okay in this neighborhood to leave bags of trash on one’s porch. New Guy starts putting his trash on his porch regularly–3 nights a week. The neighbors start to complain, but there’s not much they can do about it–the HOA has no rule on the subject, because it was never a problem before.

So after people get into shouting matches with the new guy a few times, the HOA passes a new rule: no trash on porches. New Guy gets a letter from the HOA notifying him that he’s going to get fined if there’s any more trash on his porch.

Pissed off, New Guy wanders around the neighborhood with his camera, photographing bags of trash on other people’s porches. By the end of the month, he has 15 photos of trash on other peoples’ porches, and accuses the HOA of singling him out for something other people are also doing.

The HOA now has to send letters to everyone. Now the vast majority of people getting letters about their trash are people who were leaving their trash out at socially acceptable rates in the first place, and the small utility of occasionally not hauling trash to the dumpsters due to crappy life circumstances has been eliminated.

The HOA could, if it were extremely motivated, pass a law based on frequency of trash bags, and keep track of exactly how often people leave trash on their porches. As long as your trash bags are separated by 200 days, you’re good. But put one out a mere 190 days after your previous one, and get fined. This is unlikely, would require an uncomfortable level of monitoring by the HOA, and would cost more. The more oversight you have to do, the more your HOA fees go up to pay for it all.

Now let’s suppose that there are several New Guys, and they run into more issue than just trash on their porches. They have large dogs, who bark a lot and whose pee starts killing the grass outside the building. There’s no rule against dogs, of course–lots of residents have one or two small dogs, but who has five big ones? The residents all scoop their dogs’ poop, but the New Guys don’t. The New Guys sublet their units to a bunch more new guys–there’s no rule against subletting, after all–creating a parking situation. Neighbors start complaining that their guests can’t park in the guest spots and have to walk a long way because the New Guys’ subletters are always parked in the guest spots, and there aren’t anymore parking spots in the lot. The New Guys have lots of friends who visit frequently, and neighbors complain about car doors slamming in the middle of the night and strangers coming and going in the halls. The New Guys complain that they just want to have a nice time with their friends, you assholes.

Are you going to make rules about all of these things? If you make a rule about subletting, will you also enforce it against guys whose gfs are sleeping over? They also contribute to the parking problem, after all. And how on earth are you going to enforce a rule about car doors at night or forbid people from having guests in their own units?

After about a hundred angry letters from the HOA, many fights with their neighbors, and a bunch of fines, let’s suppose the New Guys realize that they all come from a different ethno-cultural group than everyone else. If they’ve received more fines from the HOA than their ethnically different neighbors, then the HOA is guilty of Disparate Impact, (see, eg, Griggs,) and they can sue the HOA for being racist.

“In United States anti-discrimination law, the theory of disparate impact holds that practices in employment, housing, or other areas may be considered discriminatory and illegal if they have a disproportionate “adverse impact” on persons in a protected class. Although the protected classes vary by statute, most federal civil rights laws protect based on race, color, religion, national origin, and gender as protected traits, and some laws include disability status and other traits as well.” —Wikipedia

In the case of Griggs Vs. Duke Power, the SCOTUS found that Duke Power’s policy of only hiring employees with either a highschool diploma or who had received a particular score on an IQ test was racist because it disproportionately affected blacks, who are more likely than whites to drop out of highschool and score worse on IQ tests.

If the HOA’s rules impact people from different cultural groups with different norms of behavior at different rates–and it seems nearly impossible for them not to, given that, you know, different people are behaving differently–then you have disparate impact. If the HOA’s rules aren’t impacting people from different cultural groups differently, then you aren’t enforcing the community norms that you had in the first place.

The examples I have given are all minor ones. In real life, people have much larger issues. What do you do about the neighbor who decides to disassemble a car on his lawn, or the guy whose party guests crash drunkenly into your car? Or people with different norms about the acceptability of shoplifting or honor killing? Polygamy or child brides?

There’s a certain irony in this. When I think of “People I wish lived in my neighborhood,” (generally friends who have moved to far-flung places due to the vagaries of life, college, and jobs,) I don’t think, “So long as I clearly articulate all of my rules, my friends will be able to learn how to behave so they don’t crash the home values in my area,” because people I think are nice to be around are already people who share my ideas of acceptable behavior. Saying that people of other ethnic groups need to learn the rules of acceptable behavior implies, therefore, that you do not think these people know how to behave themselves or that their cultures are immoral/bad/incorrect.

I have mentioned before (though I can’t find it now, so maybe it wasn’t here,) that I think liberalism is (or ought to be) a meta-value of allowing other people in other places to do what they feel like without interfering, so long as they aren’t affecting you. The Amish can do their thing, and I can do my thing, and we don’t need to mess with each other. The Sentinelese and Pygmies aren’t hurting me, so I leave them alone. This breaks down when people with radically different beliefs live in close proximity to each other. If your neighbors believe in human sacrifice and you don’t, you will come into conflict. If your neighbors believe that women who don’t wear burkas are whores and you believe in sex-positive feminism, you will come into conflict. Then either someone will have to step in and start enforcing a bunch of new rules to sort the mess out, or you will punch each other until someone gives in.

There is nothing particularly wrong with trying to clearly articulate the rules, but it is not a solution for a lack of shared values and understanding of social norms.

Is gender dimorphism a luxury good?

So I was watching this documentary the other day, set in Norway, about whether or not gender dimorphism among humans is real.

Of course it’s real, but that’s not the point.

The documentary happened to interview a number of Norwegian women about why they chose to work in stereotypically “female” professions (the “paradox” here is that in one of the most “gender egalitarian” countries in the world, women are choosing to go disproportionately into stereotypically female professions instead of into STEM.) Then they interviewed female students somewhere in Africa, IIRC, who professed a desire to go into STEM and related fields.

African countries are not generally thought of as bastions of female equality and empowerment, though perhaps they should be.

Anyway, the Norwegian women wanted to go into feminine careers because they found those careers more “interesting”–they just wanted to do things that involved people, say, instead of boring old numbers. The African students, by contrast, wanted to go into technical or medical fields because they perceived these as high-pay and useful.

To make a Mazlow’s hierarchy of professions, we might say that doctors and civil engineers are necessities for a functioning society, while doing things you find fun and interesting is a luxury.

Back in the day–that is, back more or less in my childhood and nearby years–the gender split in the children’s aisles wasn’t so extreme. We didn’t have purple “girl Legos” and black “boy Legos;” they were just Legos:

1960 Legos Add
1960 Legos Ad

The clothes have changed, too–these days, it is perfectly normal to send a girl to school wearing layers of sparkly fluff that would previously have been reserved for ballet recitals or Halloween. In my day, we just wore pants.

(There’s an obvious irony here, that the people who proclaim the loudest that male and female children [and adults] are neurologically the same and have the same preferences in jobs, toys, hobbies, etc., tend not to be the people who actually have children and have the most first-hand experience with their preferences.)

I was speaking with a friend recently, the youngest of five from a large extended family. They mentioned that as a kid, they always wore hand-me-downs; they received their first new piece of clothing (underwear excluded) at the age of ten. Which made me speculate that for poor people with several kids to clothe, clothing that could be worn by either gender might be seen as more useful than clothing that was obviously “for girls” or “for boys;” the same is true of toys, which are more useful if all of the kids are interested in them than if only one kid is interested in them. By contrast, rich people or people with only one kid may just get a specific item aimed at that kid.


Thus wealthier countries, despite their claims of egalitarianism, may use their wealth to indulge in more gendered behavior, goods, hobbies, jobs, etc., while less wealthy countries may focus their resources on high-utility, multi-use behaviors, goods, hobbies, jobs, etc.

Now, yes, I know that traditional societies did/do not dress their children in identical clothes; if you have 8 children, it is quite easy to have a set of dresses for four of them and a set of pants for the other four. But this is not necessarily any more gendered than our current clothing, and still leaves aside toys, jobs, etc.

Obviously I am just speculating; I’d be interested if anyone knows of any relevant data.

Some thoughts for homeschooling parents

You can’t build up immunity to a disease by never experiencing it.

I hear a lot of people around these parts vowing to homeschool their kids because of this that or the other public schools are doing–usually something related to modern liberal politics. They’re afraid of their kids learning about gay marriage, or social justice, or something similar, so they decide that the solution is just to keep the kids at home where they can learn without the agenda.

Now, to be clear, I have nothing against homeschooling–all of the evidence and studies I’ve seen on the subject indicate that it is a perfectly fine way to educate a kid, so long as the parents are mentally healthy, not-abusive, etc. If you happen to live in an area where there aren’t a lot of other people around, then you might want to consider conventional schools just because your neighborhood makes it difficult to associate with other humans, but otherwise, I see homeschooling as just another method of educating a kid. If your goal is merely to provide your kid with the best education possible, this post is not for you.

However, if your goal in homeschooling is to prevent your kid from learning about broad social trends, political ideologies, or ideas you don’t like, anecdotal evidence suggests you will fail.

Your kid will grow up, they will leave the house, and then they will learn about all of the stuff everyone else believes. If everyone out there believes X, and your kid is even remotely neurologically normal, then your kid will learn about X and start believing it.

Remember, the vast majority of normal people pick up their ideas and beliefs from the other people around them. This is not a bug. This is a very important ability. Other people are treasure troves of useful information about how to stay alive and not die. Imitating others is how you learned to talk, which things are good to eat, and how to behave in new situations. If you’re standing near a road with your friend, and they suddenly jump back, it’s in your interest to jump back, too.

Inability to properly imitate others is extremely problematic and one of the basic symptoms of autism.

So, like I said, if your kids are remotely normal, they will pick up the values of the dominant culture upon exposure. And then they will decide that you were a looney nutcase.

I’m going to talk about the personal experiences of 5 people I know who were homeschooled by conservative Christians. I’m not cherry-picking; they are all the homeschooled people I know.

One went to Bible college, got pregnant, dropped out, and got married. This person still professes Christian faith, but believes far more in materialism.

The second dropped out of college, became a die-hard SJW, and changed genders. I doubt they are still Christian, and they regard their parents’ faith as a cult.

Third completed college, but has become a die-hard SJW. Has a very dim view of conservative Christianity. No children.

Fourth became an atheist liberal who believes in gay marriage and abortion.

Fifth became a die-hard SJW who hates conservative Christianity, thinks their parents were culty, and makes pornography.

If you want an in-depth look at how this happens, I recommend the webcomic Dumbing of Age.

What happened?

In all of these cases, the parents homeschooled to keep their kids isolated from certain ideas, ideologies, or behaviors. The kids graduated with very little experience of the world. They did not have a thorough understanding of how the world works, the philosophies out there, and why, exactly, their parents disagreed.

As a result, when exposed to the meme-viruses of the world, they get infected. They have no defenses.

In my experience, the vast majority of conservatives cannot articulate a coherent explanation for their beliefs, and do not attempt to explain their underlying reasoning to their kids. Many of them, I suspect, simply believe as they do because of habit, convenience, or because everyone else in their area does. Liberalism, by contrast, has put a lot of effort into making arguments against conservative beliefs.

For example, let’s take gay marriage. Common conservative arguments against gay marriage are “Ew! Gay people are gross!” “God says homosexuality is a sin,” and “The purpose of marriage is to make children.”

Liberals have all sorts of counter-arguments, like, “Ellen DeGeneres isn’t icky,” “Separation of Church and State,” and “But we let infertile people get married.”

In short, if it is really important to you that your kid think gay marriage is a bad idea, you’d better have a better, more coherent argument than that. Same for everything else in your memeplex/ideology/worldview–up to and including the existence of god. You might think your proof for the existence of god is pretty solid, but most of the people your kids will be associating with will probably think rather little of your proofs.

If you can’t explain your ideology and rigorously support it, showing your kids that your explanations of how the world works is better than the dominant ones, then you’d be better off just letting your kid go to public school and then doing your best to defend any objections to the curriculum when they come up. Your kids might think you’re kind of weird (just as I thought my parents were kind of weird in the early 90s for defending the use of aerosols/CFCs and not being concerned about the hole in the ozone layer), but they won’t hate you or think you’re a loon.