Thursday, December 21, 2017

Creeds & Creedal Defences: They're Adaptive & They Bi-normalize

A while ago I made some comments about how I was worried about a nascent trend in academia for formal creedal statements concerning the morality of certain positions.  While the original manifesto came from a religious studies department, the whole dynamics had me a bit worried for academia.

My main fears were that it could open the door for litmus tests about peoples' politics and political moralities.  "Where do you sit on the morality of position X?"  Morality tests are not something I generally think many academics should willingly bring into the pursuit of objective truth.  Of course I also don't think science should be "intersectional".  Research needs space to be research. It requires the space and freedom to  be able to look at controversial ideas with minimum deference to how people might use or interpret the results.

Of course once you start telling or suggesting how people should act, or what policies should be followed, moral ethics seem mandatory. From one frame, current tensions in academia reflect the tension of higher education as a pursuit of abstract knowledge versus a pursuit of applied knowledge. While the two intermingle, abstract pursuits are really only suited to a small minority of people. Applied pursuits appeal to a much broader range of people.  The expansion of higher ed into an ever increasing percentage of the population no doubt informs the shift in these tensions.


As most people know, Brett Weinstein of Evergreen college sent out an email where he said that telling people to leave college for a day due to their skin color was an act of racism.  The ultimate intentions of the act (to combat racism) did not justify the racist of the act itself.  One dimensionality is of course a hallmark of modern intersectional theories.  For this defence against classical racism he was branded a racist nazi.  He was racist because he did not accede to the right level of support for students of color.  Thus his act was racist by omission.  It was not racist by commission.  Second, he was a Nazi because his lack of support for people of color was a form of violence. It perpetuated and gave space for rhetorics of violence, which could cause actual violence.  Further, the flash-point this created spawned a backlash involving unsavoury people who created a hostile environment due to who they were and what they were perceived to support.

Luckily Brett had a pretty good memo.  He specifically called to end racism. But he defined racism in the classical sense (against a phenotype) rather than in an intersectional sense (one-way down punching).  Did many of his attackers look at the nuance in his memo?  No.  It didn't support the right side of things and so was wrong by omission.  He omitted the "right" kind of support.

The purposefully pejorative over application of "supremacist" labels,  mean many people are in the same boat, or have the potential to so be.  I think Lindsay Shephard is the latest example.


Over the last few years I've tried to listen to enough "alt-right" youtube feeds to get a sense of their paradigm.  Why?  I'm interested in understanding deep seated, genetic-level social dynamics.  This means coming to grips with the moral flash-points around which the left and right adaptively resonate.  Models are only as good as the data you feed into them.  Part of the picture I get is that at least some "alt-righters" are protesting what they see as white directed racism.  That is, classical racism against whites. "Kill all whites", "whiteness is the problem", "I lick your white tears", "No more old white men", etc;

What I worry about is that various supremacist groups on the left and right are going to see the value in creedal like statements.  For instance, imagine if like Brett Weinstein, you are protesting against white directed racism but are lumped in with a bunch of vile supremacists.  Instead of pleading your case, which seems utterly pointless in highly polarized environments, it is easier to refer people to a well vetted creedal statement that summarizes why you think all racism is bad, but which also indicates that you see your role as protesting against a specific incarnation of classical racism because no one else will.  Or, your creed could sophistically defend why racism, as a one-directional punch-up phenomenon, is valid and actually not phenotypically supremacist.

That sounds pretty reasonable.  It may not make much of a difference on the ground, but it may help a teeny bit with any larger media outlets which haven't fully fallen for click-bait polemics.  You just lump people into good or bad groups and encourage them to get on board with the right verbiage or right groups.  Sounds very religious like doesn't it?


The problem is that this type of orthodox foil can be used to protect against all sorts of hypocritical behaviour.  Hey, you can't call me a racist because I won't hire white people - see this academically accepted statement on intersectionality and the impossibility of punch-up racism. Our intent is to make America Equitable Again!

Note, that it doesn't actually matter whether the individual's intention was actually for equity or whether the intention was unbridled white racism.  Reference to formal creedal statement ends conversation. Sure intrepid investigators can try to tease out whether you're actually following the creed or not.  In fact it provides the investigator an easy way to see theoretical tension points.  But, creedal confessions tend to only require basic understandings and acquiescence to creedal intent. How many Nicenists are really up on homoousia or homousia distinctions vs. how many are up on the creed's overall intent?  I force you, the journalist, to get lost in sophisticated sophistry whose cover frees up my action space.

In practice, what creeds allows is individuals to hide under a cloak of group acceptance. Groups are adaptive for a reason! Never underestimate human propensity for "freeloading" (advantage taking self-interest).  When I publicly acquiesce to a creed I also enable orthodoxic protection, which for those so inclined, can free them up for much greater ranges of motion.  For others though, it provides a unifying goal.  The whole thing is rather bimodal...

In this sense it mirrors what gene-culture models suggest.  Large groups require transparent norms. You can't judge individuals (too much anonymity). You can only judge power acquiescence.  The loosening of norms, compensated by their easier comprehension, enables group size to expand. But is also bifurcates the population. You get a core group of altruists who supply much of the group's day-to-day adaptive fitness.  You also get a large group of freeloaders who pursue self-interest and advantage taking.  Out-group (between-group) competition keeps things in check.  But without existential doom hanging over you, what keeps the freeloaders in check?

Creeds without existential pressure serve as a pandora's box for advantage takers.

But for those of us in academia, the adaptive groups they facilitate might just be the only way we can protect ourselves against Spanish Inquisitions.  What a conundrum!

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Metaphorical Truth / Practical Reality vs. Hyper Rationalism

Post modernism injected a lot of new energy into academic thinking.  Some of it for the better.  Some of it for the worse. Coming to grips with the "irrational" side of human nature is a major challenge for social science.

Some approaches try to get at this by extending game theory interactions while holding onto homo-economicus reasoning.  Behavioural economics is one field that does this. Other approaches assume everything is subjective to some degree or another and figure free-hand explorations curtailed by progressive moral guidelines will lead to just neo-marxist ends. Many "studies" departments do this.

Here's a list of how different researcher's I'm familiar with have tackled the question of the adaptiveness of human "irrationality".

BRET WEINSTEIN: Metaphorical Truth

Bret Weinstein raised the achilles heel of hyper-rationalism in a recent interview with Sam Harris.  The issue is whether things like religious belief (which are non-factual) can still be adaptive.  Unfortunately Harris didn't push the debate too much. But that is alright, they covered a lot of ground. I suspect Harris didn't want to get antagonistic in a conversation that was going so well.

Bret's reasoning on the adaptiveness of counter-factual religious beliefs was entirely evolutionary. His logic, as far as I can remember it, goes like this:

  1. Religion is adaptive.  It is a universal human expression up until the era of modernity.
  2. Religious beliefs are adaptive. The weak form of this argument is that the belief system as a whole is adaptive.  The strong form of this argument is that individual beliefs which have persisted are in and of themselves adaptive. Bret took the strong form of this argument, much to Harris' surprise.
  3. Beliefs which have persisted for a "long" period of time are not just memetically fit, but are gene-culturally (culturegen) fit.  They provide a real fitness advantage for group members.
  4. If the beliefs were not fit, they would have been selected out by competing, lower cost beliefs.
  5. Only beliefs which are stable enough over time are likely to have been adaptive.
  6. We can not infer that any of this applies to modern beliefs.  Modern beliefs have not necessarily been stable enough to justify point 4. You might only be able to say that a certain belief lineage is likely to have been adaptive, and even then, only for past conditions.
It is really nice to see Bret taking dynamic evolution into play here.  When combined with his caveat to modernity you escape many of the easy criticisms people have with respect to evolutionary thinking.

I think the main counterpoint to this argument is that one can never guarantee that any idea is in fact adaptive.  Can't maladaptive memes and culturegens persist over time?  Yes. But Bret's argument makes it a case of probabilities.  What is the probability that any meme or culturegen stable over a "long time period" is maladaptive? This is a productive area of discussion.  Nowak's work on virulence seems informative.  Viruses moderate their virulence over time.  The steady state solution for parasitic behaviour exists in tension between high virulence and low longevity vs. low virulence and high longevity. Moderation in both is Nash stable.  Mutation rates also decrease to match moderation.

DAVID SLOAN WILSON: Practical Reality

Wilson spent pretty much a whole book expounding his view on how religion is adaptive.  Darwin's Cathedral is an under appreciated work of art.  If the arguments aren't convincing, read Norezayan's Big Gods and then go back to it.

Here is D.S. Wilson's take on adaptively false belief.  In Darwin's Cathedral he states:

If there is a trade-off between the two forms of realism [factual & practical], such that our beliefs can become more adaptive only by becoming factually less true, then factual realism will be the loser every time. … Factual realists detached from practical reality were not among our ancestors. 

For context, here's how he frames the two forms of realism:

What do I mean by factual and practical realism? A belief is factually realistic when it accurately describes what’s really out there (e.g., there are no people up there sitting on clouds). A belief is practically realistic when it causes the believer to behave adaptively in the real world.

Wilson's approach in inexorably tied to multi-level selection theory and the biological reality (real-enough reality) of human groups.

As of 2002 he said "Thinking of religious groups as adaptive units comparable to guppies and finches is so new that it is impossible at present to identify the appropriate spatial and temporal scale."  And,

The concept of local adaptation allows religion to be studied from an evolutionary perspective using the same methods employed on nonhuman species, as I discussed in chapter 2.  If the environment changes over time and space, and if religions adapt human groups to their environments, we should be able to predict the properties of religion at a fine spatial and temporal scale as surely as we can predict the properties of upstream and downstream guppies.
Belief systems must cope with
  • Justification
  • Cheating
  •  Economical (easy to understand)
  •  More motivating than a real system
  •  More efficient at producing behaviour
An adaptive belief systems must be economical.  The beliefs that justify the behaviors must be easily learned and employed in the real world.  A fictional belief system that is user-friendly and that motivates an adaptive suite of behaviors will surpass a realistic belief system that requires a Ph.D. to understand and that leads to a paralysis of indecision.

Wilson explicitly states that "religions [or any group] adaptiveness must be judged by the behaviours they motivate not by their factual correspondence to reality."  The counterpoint to this is that over time, correspondence to reality is usually more fit than a-factuality.  While this is likely true, it is pragmatics not theory that is the ultimate arbiter of what is fit.

This is where things get messy with hyper-rationalists.  New atheists like Harris take a utopian position here, arguing that our ability to chose enables us to pursue transformative paths that can exceeds the cold hearted calculus of nature (evolution).  Weinstein explicitly mentioned this in his conversation with Harris.  All organisms have the same ultimate goal - spread their genes.  Thus, evolution's goal may not be what we actually want - maximal domination.  Instead what we might want is some balance.  This means a conscious limiting of fundamentally insatiable proclivities.

Thus, I am sensitive to Harris' stance. But, like many others, I smirk at the ironically "religious" utopian aspects he has to make. While they might be rational, they are still dogmatic.  But, ultimately, the question comes down to who do we want to be in control, us or nature?

The real issue then becomes over what time period do we need to "supress" out genetic proclivities to get benefits which outweigh the real human costs a quick change to hyper-rationalism might entail?  After all, most people aren't likely to give up the yoke of pro-social religion for the yoke of pro-social hyper-rationalism without a fight.  Pro-social hype rationalism hasn't yet shown itself a very adept, very friendly hegemon.  Pro-social religion, though messy, is at least a known entity with evolutionary robust mechanisms and norms (like inescapable eternal damnation and Big God arbiters who can't be fooled nor bribed). 

Here's a final quote from Wilson (p. 156)

along with Durkheim, I predict that most enduring religions survive on the basis of their secular utility…  What will not be observed, or rather seldom observed, are major beliefs that have no function other than to satisfy the human urge to explain, or that actually handicap the believer by motivating dysfunctional behaviors.

a sect or cult doesn’t senesce [decay] as it grows into a church; it adapts to the changing wealth of its members caused by its own success.

JORDAN PETERSON: Darwinian Truth

Peterson takes a very Jungian approach to his idea of Darwinian Truth.  He views religion as a meta-truth as per a Joseph Campell monomyth.  However, Peterson adds some evolutionary colour to the monomyth.  Here is his logic (as near as I can tell)

  1. Stories emerged amongst early humans as a way to convey information, especially information that was morally/evolutionarily important. In other words, stories conveyed classically adaptive information.
  2. These stories have been refined for millennia, producing a series of near universal monomyths. 
  3. The length of refinement ensures fitness payoffs are stable over long time periods. While there may be competing payoffs, such as low cost commitment beliefs, the payoff of these cheaper beliefs are uncertain and are less likely to have been as (evolutionarily) vetted.
  4. These Darwinian truths are fit because they keep us in contact with basic aspects of human nature which are so deep seated that they only change on long genetic time scales.
The challenge about this view is its unfalsifiability and avoidance of dynamic evolution.  Is the "deep seated enough" inference enough to obviate modernity?  I doubt it.  But I also worry about the "just so" critique sloppy functional evolution is subject to.  How do you tease out that which is "deep seated" from that which is superficial and potentially maladaptive?  I interpret Peterson's likely answer to be that of probabilities.  If you find that the ideas and tensions which are most fundamental to long-lived human moral cultural, you increase the probability that any leaven added to these ideas is less maladaptively significant that any leaven added to modern dogma and hyper-rationality.  In essence, you need connection to deep metahistories to temper the forward-predicting blinders hyper-rationality and modern quasi-secular religion necessarily has.

To be honest, I'm sympathetic to this last critique. Purposeful recreation of secular religion has a bad track record. Marxism is a classic example. I think Animal Farm critiques are apropos here.  It is very hard to re-invent all the human dynamical checks and balances necessary to keep self-interest at bay.  While we get better at social engineering all the time, eons of "arms races" on this front make for a very nuanced and sophisticated space. In fact I suspect our hubris with respect to rational atheistic moral quasi-religion is akin to 19th century biological engineering.  What could possibly go wrong with cane toads?

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Market for Information Arbiters

There is little question that mainstream media's role as a trusted informational arbiter has crashed.  Some people suspect it may be due to ideological monoculture effects finally coming home to roost.  Others cite the role digital media plays with respect to popularism and click bait & tribal dynamics.
We'll skip this rabbit hole and just see what a market analysis has to say about landscape changes.


A market-based analysis is likely to show a big gap in the provision of authority-mediated communication. Religion certainly doesn't fill this role anymore. Rule of law has supplanted much of its functional (evolutionary) role. Neither does politics. There is no existential crisis unifying the populace. We're devolving into tribes rather than unifying. For politics to function as a broad-based trusted informational arbiter, it needs new-religious-movement momentum and dynamics.

The media has become tribabilized & hence delegitimized as a source of authority. While it still functions as a conveyer of interesting information, the way the left thinks of Fox news is the way the right thinks of all mainstream news - solidly in the tank for their political and ideological "group". Restraining tendencies are gone. There are no cross-platform authorities.

Or are there?


I'd suggest that popular "scientists" are on the verge of filling this market gap.

For example, look at the way Jordan Peterson has been popularized. 550,000 youtube subscribers and millions of interview views! It's not because he is a great orator nor a charismatic person.  He tends to the aspergery side of academic inquiry.  In other words, his perspective tends to be on technical concerns. He also come across as leaving any and all offence as a listener's duty to "get over".  This affect & approach is extremely off putting for many liberal minded folk - like Sam Harris.  But the same "tell it like it is" affect is extremely attractive for many Trumpers.  His affect is a leverage for both sides.  They both use it to validate or reject the academic research he cites and the inferences he draws from it.

One group uses his affect to disavow that socially objectionable ideas should have a place in open discourse.  One group uses his affect to justify that bigotry can't be bigotry if it is based upon objective research.  Obviously both groups talk past each other.*

Jonathon Haidt, another popular social scientist, tends towards more of a "harm" paradigm. Implications and nuance matter.  This assumes not everyone is up on the technicalities of what is being discussed, and therefore potential misapplications and the enabling of erroneous conclusions matter. Energy is spent on what basically amounts to interfaith dialogue dialectics.

Critical theorists (inter sectionalists) appear as Peterson's foil. Just switch the autistic focus on objectivity for an autistic focus on social "justice".

Twitter and youtube has raised the profile of popular scientists.  Major players I know about include:
  • Noam Chomsky
  • Richard Dawkins
  • Sam Harris
  • Nicholas Christakis
  • Jonathon Haidt
  • Steven Pinker
  • Bret Weinstein
  • Claire Lehmann
  • Clay Routledge
  • Peter Boghassian
  • Razib Khan
  • Michael Shermer
  • Lee Jussim
  • Christina Sommers
  • Gad Saad
  • Jordan Peterson
  • Sargon of Akkad
  • Dennis Prager

Judging from their net twitter subscribers and net youtube views, these folk play a noticeable role.  While their popularity does not yet approach that of journalists, I suspect things are changing.

In the cold culture war, having science on your side is the ultimate Trump card. Both political sides have their anti-science flanks.  The right has climate change and environmentalism.  The left has blank slatism and GMO's. The legitimacy of each "side's" scientists is a major battle zone.**

Any position gains protection and legitimization via science's seal of authority. If your group's position doesn't have a scientific backing, you're at a significant rhetorical disadvantage.  Further than this though, your whole worldview may need a coherent defensible position.  It is not enough to cite random articles. To survive today's rhetorical environment you must link to a robust paradigmiacal defence.  And this paradigm may also need a moral and ethical underpinning and explicit purpose (e.g. protecting blasphemous objectivity or promoting social justice equity)

I suspect this is part of the reason there is so much fight over Critical Theory departments. The imprimatur of scientific legitimacy for highly subjective and potentially unfalsifiable lines of reason create a nuclear bomb that has the potential to sidestep the restraints imposed by falsifiable scientific methods.

The weaponization of pure subjectivity is something to worry about. Jonathan Haidt has confronted this issue if his"two teloses" interpretation of post-secondary trajectories.


More relevant though, is how far lay people will be able to push association with hard science's imprimatur via association with "pop scientists".  In many ways Sam Harris' hyper-rational anti-religionists aren't much different from Jordan Peterson's anti-PC in-groupers.  Both use proximity to a well-spoken and knowledgeable figurehead to authorize and legitimize their own world views.  While many years ago people's theological bonfides were authorized by which protestant sect and theology they followed, today people may be doing the same by latching on to well known scientific figureheads.  You don't have to figure out a whole rational scientific paradigm, you just need to latch onto someone who is able to defend their own in a popular way which also connotes enough "authority" to buffer you from outside attacks.

The field is indeed weaponizing.


*  What's funny here is that both groups are using hypocritical based tools.  Intersectionalists who deny that punch-up racism is possible are a mirror image of academic libertarians who disavow that objective measures should ever be silenced.  Current differences are largely based on how far each approach has penetrated our larger sociality.  At one time "feminist" critical inquiries were an academic exercise within the confines of academia.  This is the same position rational objectivists take.  Un-PC objective inquiry is a key component of bounded academic spaces.  There needs to be a safe space where such ideas can be discussed.  It is easy to see both groups as dopplegangers who are just at a different evolutionary stage.

**Data suggests novices and experts tend to be the most dogmatic and inflexible with respect to their sacred values (here's a somewhat related paper on discrimination being equal across political spectrums - it just differs according to who you see as the out-group. And another similar paper).

For some more on the latest Jordan Peterson brouhaha....

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Guns & Levels of Selection

This week there's been a lot of talk again about gun control.  I really don't think there is enough social trust present to make any movement on this front a starter. Anything and everything just entrenches.

Brett Weinstein had a pretty good twitter storm on it
While Brett's utilitarianism (including black swan events) is one way to look at the issue, another is via cultural evolution theory - specifically the multi-level selection approach.

Evolutionary transitions require three things

  1. extreme dependency
  2. coordination
  3. conflict minimization.
While people aren't "evolving" into a spatially separated symbiotes, we continue to be subject to ephemeral evolution between larger and smaller group levels.  Basically, human groups are torn between near equal fitness advantage between group oriented altruism and self-sacrifice, and individualistically oriented self-interest and freeloading.

Analyzing the gun debate as a levels of selection question is productive.

The rule of law makes people dependent upon the state. Disarming everyone empowers criminals and creates extreme dependency toward the state.  This factor favours an (ephemeral) evolutionary transition to a cosmopolitanesque state.

I'm not sure how gun laws enable greater coordination.  I don't think they do.  Solving the problem of intra-state violence is not coordination. Usually coorindation enables an organism to outcompete other non-coordinated organisms.  Will a theoretically lower level of gun violence enable better competition between nation states?  Doubtful.

New gun laws may minimize conflict.  The data is still uncertain here.  In my mind, the arguments boil down to "herd immunity" vs. "just one life saved".  

The herd immunity argument suggests a certain percentage of gun carries and users increases crime threshold costs.  If you never know whether your victim is armed, there is always a risk that crime costs will be very high.  I think the second amendment defence against tyranny argument boils down to the same thing.

The "just one life saved" argument is standard in the mainstream media.  There is no real purpose for guns for most people.  Hunting requires simple single shot rigs.  Therefore any personal enjoyment firearms bring are more than offset by their costs.

Because I think the data is still out on whether gun laws actually increase or decrease conflict levels, I don't think this one can be adjudicated.  Guns may increase the severity of violent acts, but they don't eliminate violence (car ramming & bombs vs. shootings)*.

From a levels of selection point of view, gun laws increase dependency, do nothing for coordination - at least in any sense that matters evolutionarily, and have an uncertain effect on conflict minimization.  For these reasons, I suspect the US gun issue will not be solved. It doesn't meet the basic components necessary for an evolutionary transition.  Because of this, it is very unlikely that people will "feel it resonating".  You will certainly continue to have an elite class that feels very strongly about it.  Perhaps that is a pre-cursor necessary to seed the transition landscape.  Richerson has an interesting paper out at the moment tangentially related to this issue.  

At some point the gun issue may get tied to a real coordination and conflict minimization solution.  Unfortunately, I don't think this is where things are right now.  Because of this, I think the gun debate is a non starter and will only serve to further polarize and embitter US political discourse.  The morality on either side is so spandrel led on this issues, no ground will be given.  

But this is also why I really fear authoritarianism on the gun issue is likely to be the spark of the second US civil war.  My main hope is that there will be another convention of the states that will put this issue to rest. Without a clear rule of law on this front, bickering and authoritarianism will just spiral out of control...

 *I think suicide is a completely different class of discussion from violent acts against other people.  

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Cultural War Dopplegangers

Few useful cultural tools go unreplicated.  This is especially true for cultural weapons.

There is little doubt that "climate denier" and global warming have been polemicized and weaponized.  This isn't to deny the reality of climate change, nor understate its importance.  But it does suggest there are "rational" reasons people may "oppose" some of the policies which surround it.  Scott Adams often tries to make this distinction (without much success to my mind).  David Friedman had a popular critique (?heresy?) as well.

From the cultural weapons lens, what matters isn't the evidential minutae, but that the topic functions a cudgel for in-group out-group norming.  Global warming is, for all practical purposes, sacralized.  Questioning it, even to improve the accuracy of the science, has been intersectionalized with political ramifications.

I have a sneaky feeling quantitative social coherence modelling is primed for weaponization as well.  Quantitative evolutionary population genetics is clearly in the targets of social progressives.  This is illustrated by some one-off cases:

  • The google Damore case (there are sex related differences at the aggregate population level)
  • Eric Weinstein (evolutionary biology has a lot to say about how to "do" equity)

It is also supported by the outright animosity "studies" departments have with respect to biology.

Cultural evolution has models. Climate change has models.  For laymen, as crazy it it sounds, this gives them the same "air" of credibility.  There is little doubt the climate is warming.  There is little doubt that societies with low asabiyah (social coherence capital) implode.  What is important is that both can be superficially understood with common sense.  This makes disagreement seem irrational.

Both environmental change and social coherence are coded in at the genetic level.  These are some rather foundational things human groups have to worry about.

For the last few decades the left has had exclusive control over anti-science memes.  Genetically modified food and anti-vax'ers have been about all the right has been able to muster to counter things.  Neither has been very successful.  Lots of "right-leaning" conspiracy theorists are also ant-vax'ers.  The GM thing also has a fairly shady history (cane toads anyone?).

But now, as the culture war heats up, it seems as if the right is rallying to foil the one-sided weaponization of anti-science memes.  Actual accuracy is beside the point.  These are group weapons.

Evolutionary biology has emerged as one such tool.  Feminists and social justice zealots appear very sensitive to biological attacks.  While there is almost certainly less denial of the science than some might think, it is the connotations and possible extensions (e.g. eugenics) that force doubling down on some rather anti-science like positions.  Hence, the fervour around Damore & Weinstein.

The latest evolution of this landscape involves anthem sitting.  People at home usually don't stand nor quiet down for anthems. In the 50's this was certainly less the case.  So whether athletes stand or kneel during the anthem is mainly about group implications of the actions.

In this landscape Trump has goaded the left into doubling down on something than can be classed as an "anti-science" position.  The science is pretty clear that groups with low coherence fail.  This is as common sense a principle as global warming and CO2.

What matters is that people who say anyone should be free to disagree with any and all aspects of group norms and social cohesion are forced to take the ludicrous position that "anything goes".  This is the same logical space that climate deniers are forced into - saying nothing matters.  Both positions are obviously false.  But subtlety is rhetorically unfit.

"Deniers" have to fight a no-win rhetorical war. They have to say that their one exception doesn't matter.

  • Kneeling during an anthem is unimportant.  
  • This particular coal powered plant is unimportant.

Both these statements are true at the individual level.  Both are false at the aggregate level.  The aggregate measure they impact (global CO2 & social asabiyah) are important & scientifically demonstrable.

Thus, I think the right is going to latch onto the rhetorical power and memetic fitness of quantitative social cohesion and evolutionary biology.  While I suspect this may just even the battlefield (as per this research showing people are people), I also suspect weaponization will make the fight all the more dirtier.  After all, in a war, objective accuracy is subordinate to what gets you through the day.

So if you're on the left, get ready for people to start citing evidence on how social asabiyah (coherence capital) really does matter for state survivability.  Your argument that current levels of asabiyah are sufficient will fly about as well as the equivalent sentiment from climate "deniers".

While you may be temped to say say stalling CO2 levels will still result in temperature increases, can't the right also say the same thing about social capital stalls?  After all the simulations show a fair bit of momentum behind this as well.  In fact, the social simulations tend to be much more pessimistic.  Irreversible crashes are all but guaranteed....

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Emerging Secular Conversion Rituals

Religion has a variety of conversion terms.  Christian sects differ in what it is the person is actually accepting.  Catholics often accept a conglomeration of original sin, saving grace and submission to authority.  Evangelicals' born again experience mainly centres around acceptance of one's sinful state and faith in saving grace.  Mormon testimonies involve a spiritual experience that combines grace with acceptance of modern authority and revelation (Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith as a prophet).  Islam's seems related to acceptance of a strong positivism which includes Mohamed's divine role and the Koran.

Lately, the quasi-religious nature of secular moralized-politics have reproduced the same dynamics.  Its "red pill" vs. "privilege".  While communities haven't fully ritualized these experiences, the process is certainly underway.  How will the stack up?


The alt-light's conversion experience is often called "taking the red pill". If you don't get the reference, watch The Matrix.

The Red Pill meme was popularized within the men's right movement. Generalized usage has expanded in the last 6 months.  This seems to coincide with liberal backlash against free speech restrictions and far left violence.  Thus, it coincides with liberalism's ongoing schism between radical socialism and classical libertarianism.  The fake news media meme has energized this situation.  After all, it doesn't take much first hand experience with main stream media to realize how inaccurate and self-righteously biased things are. Such realizations are increasingly branded as "a road to Damascus moment".

Such an "aha" moment seems to center around a coming of age with respect to informational independence.  In Fowler's old stages of faith theory, it probably sits at a level 4: disillusionment.  Information can't be trusted.  It seems to be almost immediately followed by a belief that the individual themselves must always be the final arbiter of "truth". Thus it promotes itself as a type of radical individualism.  Although in practice, most people's independence can be confused with naive acquiesce to classical libertarian group-thought.

My sense is that this most closely parallels mormonism "coming of age" ritualistic testimony experience.  It is biased for a radical type of individualism but is operationalized by highly groupish dynamics.  Mormonism's "testimony' conversion is, among Western religions, probably the least biased by an acceptance of original sin.  It is, instead, more biased towards an admittance of one's own personal faults.  Even then, the admittance of sin is often separated into an often distinct "born again" experience.

Red Piller's conversion seems to amount to an acceptance of their naivete and lack of independent discernment and lack of self-empowerment. Cassie Jayne's popular Red Pill documentary on Men's Rights is probably a good concise example too the phenomenon that avoids the misogynist vitriol associated with other popular portrayals.


Red Pilling is obviously different from privilege confessions: the radical left's focus on original sin or white guilt (which is more generalized as intersectional guilt).  As far as I can see, this dynamically parallel ritualistic experience centres around a personal and collective admission of guilt.  To my way of thinking this closely mirrors many elements of  Catholicism.

The privilege confession experience typically brings with it a strong appeal-to-authority dynamic.  There are professors and civil right's advocates who are well versed in the theories and skills needed to "detoxify" and limit other's "oppression".  Indeed, most of the theology of post modern "studies" departments centres around a systemic approach to this issue.  This creates a further parallel to Catholicism's own radical systemic theology.  This is in stark contrast to protestantism's individualism.  However, authority need not be limited to formal academic channels.  Stronger intersectional variations of this ritual involve accepting the de facto authority of any marginalized individual over one's self.  Often this is called "checking your privilege".  It is pejoratively referred to as "the oppression olympics".

It would be very interesting to see what current cultural evolution tools have to say about these competing culturgens.  Unfortunately that will have to wait.  Instead, some quick speculations about proselytization will have to suffice.  But, before I start, I had better confess my bias toward individualism... :)

I suspect "red pilling" is a good fit for America's protestant tradition with radical individualism.  You don't have to sell people on a single idea (confess your guilt, admit your power, bend your knee), you just have to ask them to think for themselves and investigate. Perhaps this explains some of Mormonism's higher conversion rate that Jehovah's Witnesses.  The former asks people to investigate and then ask God what is right.  The latter asks people to investigate from the scriptures what is most logical.  This strategy is much more of an appeal to an-authority approach.

Thus, I give "red pilling" a leg up on "privilege".  While there are certainly many people who prefer the certainty of authority or the self-flagellation of confession, I suspect the "find out for yourself" approach is easier to sell to non-extremists.

     Winner: Red Pill

Logical Structure
Privilege has a leg up on pseudo-scientific logic.  Because it has a well developed academic base and is currently optimized for a systemic theological world-view, it portrays a stronger sense of relative validity.  Red pilling is much like mormonism, you're simply asked to believe (or more accurately, disbelieve). The process is anything but linear and logically-structured.  Americans tend to reject over-structured social processes more than Europeans who seem to appreciate it.

The systematized nature of privilege gives it a leg up in hierarchical organizational structuring.  Levels of advancement are well-structured (prof, to tenured prof,  small community organizer to national organizer....).  Red pilling's only structure is pyramidal social network status.  Take Scott Adams for instance.  His popularity is largely based in his ability to persuade (or red pill) people.  Similarly with social media stars.  Their reach is a function of their conversion abilities (or perceived abilities to covert - for instance, I doubt Alex Jones converts many people, but adherents think of him as capable to do so if people would only listen...  There is lots of good academic stuff on the dynamics of true-belief zealotism in relation to conversions)

     Winner: Privilege

The ability to scale up either conversion ritual should radically affect its memetic success.  But, I don't think its possible to even theorize about which one works better.  It is a case of near equal fitness between two adjacent levels of selection: individualism and collectivism.  While environmental and societal conditions may affect relative rates of how the population as a whole responds, I don't think you can glean any information about how the process goes at the individual level.  I also suspect there is way too much noise at the societal level to guess what is a better fit.  The best one can say is that different types of people will prefer different approaches.  Those who have lost religion will probably need the homeostatic balance collectivist approaches offer.  Those who have strong community or religious ties, probably don't need more collectivist biased balance.


Costly Sacrifice
One of the insights from the science of religion is that high-commitment costs are associated with increased memetic virility.  Thus old Christian martyrdoms (in the arena and helping plague victims) were an important dynamical aspect in Christianity's rapid expansion.  On this front privilege definitely wins.  Red pill's main sacrifice involves sunk-costs.  However, privilege definitely has some costs - at least in theory.  Often costs accrue at the group level.  For example affirmative action has group costs.  Not speaking up in a meeting to give people of color space, has limited costs.  In practice I doubt many average adherents actually sacrifice jobs, college admission, or safety.  Of course, I could be wrong.

   Winner: Privilege

Never under-estimate the role of rebellion and prestige bias.  While self-sacrificial flagellation for the betterment of society as a whole is definitely a sign of elite status, as Peter Turchin shows, its also a good way for an elite class to keep the potential-elite class down.  As the costs of elite status increase, pseudo-elite impoverization increases.  They just can't keep up with the Joneses.

In some cases, full rebellion becomes cool.  Why pay so much for something that has little chance of ever working.  Why not change the rules?  I suspect Red Pilling has a leg up on Privilege here.  Privilege sets up a classic "race-to-the-bottom" competition.  Red Pilling doesn't.

Plus, Red Pilling has just the right amount of nebulousness.  Things that are well defined, like privilege academics, have greater potential universality.  But, in practice, things that are just a little bit ambiguous have more persuasion and memetic power.  Social simulations show tight rule bounds groups can't become as large as looser groups.

    Winner: Red Pill

Right now the packaging and branding of Red Pill experiences are probably on par with those of Privilege.  Perhaps because privilege has been around longer, it now seems to come across as a bit more of an ideology rather than as an experience.  Anyone who has watched a Q&A of a controversial social figure has probably heard audience members thanking a speaker for their role in "coming to terms with my own privilege", or "getting me started on the red pill".

While it may just be me, The Red Pill, seems more amenable to tight packaging.  Did you "take the pill", vs. "did you admit your privilege".  The former just seems more marketable - it is more visual and more concrete in the way baptism is more concrete than a profession of sin.

     Winner: Red Pill

Secular group movements often resonate around religious dynamics because of the fitness (genetic and memetic) of this cultural evolutionary solution.  It works for a reason, and this reason is minimally based on supernatural agents (for instance, moral big brothers are a functional non-supernatural replacement for many modern scenarios).

Interestingly enough, conversion stories on both sides of the hot culture war are concretizing. Full group membership may soon require such epiphanies.  The historical experiences of world religions are illuminating.  Groups that have successful group member recruitment strategies, tend, over time, to win confrontations.  This means there is high selection pressure for things which aid this drive.  The formalization of ritual is a proven strategy.  Rituals which afford the participant a chance at transcendence (a spiritual confirmation) are more memetically fit and more individually significant. They provide a strong initiating and bonding experience.  The concrete nature of such experiences makes them easy to commodify and share.  In short, I'd be very surprised if any successful highly moralized group endeavour did not, over time, resonate around some type of conversion experience.

The parallels between protestantism and Catholicism are a bit uncanny.  This might be due to a limited number of wells within this cultural-cognitive landscape.  Or it might be an artifact of clear Protestant and Catholic traditions within North American society.  To me, the natural explanation seems more parsimonious than the historical explanation.  Nonetheless, religious insights offer some interesting ways of looking at what is currently happening in society.