[ExI] Cosmopolitanism, collective epistemology and other issues

Keith Henson hkeithhenson at gmail.com
Sun Jul 10 04:11:43 UTC 2016

On Sat, Jul 9, 2016 at 2:15 PM, Anders <anders at aleph.se> wrote:


> These are the people who regard affiliation to their "English" tribe as
> higher than even their "British" identity. Many think that the state should
> reflect their tribal affiliation and reject other affiliations: loyalty and
> purity are more important than tolerance and openness. These are not my
> people.

They are, however, evolved-in-the-stone-age _humans_.  Or perhaps I
should say social primates.

> I think we need to defend the enlightenment globalist vision. We need to
> push for tolerance, which is extra complex because many of those who do not
> share the vision feel they do not benefit from a more cosmopolitan world,
> and prefer a closed one: tolerance of the Other is bad for their visions.

There is a solid evolutionary reason that humans who believe the
future is bleak are responsive to and spread xenophobic memes.  If you
want tolerance, then you have to sway the center of the population
away from a view that the future that is worse than the present.

I have harped on this for going on a decade on this list.

You can make the argument that in an absolute sense things are OK, we
are not starving yet. But that is not the subjective view of a
substantial fraction of the population.  Animals, including humans,
respond to differences and the average person--particularly in the
US--knows that as a class they are not as well off as they were 20-30
years ago and the prospects of their children have diminished. (If
they go for higher education, most of them will be saddled with
onerous debt.)

Further, what do they hear in the media?  Endless pontifications about
running out of energy and global warming that's going to cook us all
or wreck our lives with monster storms, or heat waves, or drown the
coastal cities.


> The problem is not just that a stupid decision was made - accidents happen.
> The problem is this does not look like an isolated issue (think Trump, think
> Syriza).

Think Hitler, think Pol Pot, think Rwanda.  Humans were wired up in
the stone age by frequent glitches in the food supply where it was
survival enhancing for the _genes_ for the tribe members to work up a
hate for the neighbors, and try to kill them.  Even if they lost
(which they did half the time) and all the adults were killed, the
genes marched on since the young women of the defeated tribe were
incorporated as mates (or second/third mates) by the winners.

> If a society cannot actually tell good and bad evidence apart, then
> we should expect collective decisions to be random: very bad news when
> dealing with important and dangerous things.

No kidding!

A consequence of these mechanisms is that they make people _stupid_.
Think of the US civil war.  People with these mechanisms switched on
are likely to follow leaders who in bountiful times would be
considered crazy.  (I have often said that if Hitler had been born ten
years earlier or ten years later we would have never heard of him.  On
the other hand, it's entirely possible that someone else would have
occupied the insane leader slot.)  Wars of the kind carried on by
hunter-gatherers were _not_ rational from the human viewpoint even if
they were from the gene's viewpoint.

Individual (and most of the time rational) humans last a generation
while the gene selection goes on forever.  So, when it is in the
interest of our genes, an evolved behavioral switch to irrational
thinking is flipped.  Of course the threshold for such switches
differs from person to person.  You can have a single person flip into
irrational behavior or a substantial fraction of a whole country.  I
will avoid examples, we have plenty of them recently.

> Open societies depend on the
> freedom of citizens to find things that ought to be changed and then
> convincing society to change them. If this process is too noisy open
> societies have no strong advantage - moral or practical - over closed
> societies.
> This is deeply troubling, and we spent a fair bit agonizing over it at a
> panel debate a few days later (
> https://www.theguardian.com/membership/audio/2016/jul/01/what-will-the-world-look-like-in-2025-guardian-live-event
> ) The causes are complex: a cultural shift, networked media, new noise
> sources, far bigger societies... but we better find them and figure out how
> to fix them, or we will be drowned in noise.

I don't think there is anything new here.  Different playing field,
different players, but the same gene based game rules out of

How to fix is _obvious_.  Stagnant or falling per capita income
(analogy of food in the stone age) switches on the whole cascade of
xenophobic memes building up, irrational thinking, following crazy
leaders and, if it goes far enough, internal or external conflict.
Rising per capita income switches the cascade off.

How long has it been since you heard of the IRA?  What happened to
them?  Ultimately it was the Irish women who cut the birth rate to
near replacement.  Economic growth got ahead of population growth, per
capita income started going up and in particular the future prospects
looked better.  The IRA lost population support and eventually went
out of business.

Simple, obvious and easy to verify as this view of social primates is,
there is something about it that people are very reluctant to accept
or to even consider.

Reminds me a bit about figuring out that status seeking was a major
human motivation and (since I am one of them) applying it to myself.
Back in the mid to late 90s I took an awful lot of flack for
recognizing one of my own motivations.  Over the next ten years status
seeking as a motivation and even admitting it was one of your motives
became fairly accepted.

The view that mass human behavior, i.e., wars and related social
disruptions are based on evolved traits seems to violate practically
everyone's view of what humans are.  That's a shame because without
understanding how the system works we are most unlikely to fix it.


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