Changes in Reality

[Some short thoughts I just wanted to get out of my brain; bullet-points instead of well-structured prose. This is entirely random speculation.]

  • Social systems (laws, customs, memes) are subject to evolutionary pressure from the dynamics of reality; when reality changes, existing social systems are typically no longer in equilibrium and have to evolve, or collapse and be rebuilt. Consider for example the invention of the birth control pill and the resulting impact on family structure, gender relations, etc. Pre-pill social customs around marriage and family were no longer in equilibrium in a world with reliable female birth control, and so society shifted to a new set of customs.
  • “Change in reality” largely means economic and technological change. New wealth and new capabilities.
  • “Change in reality” has been accelerating for a long time as new technologies and discoveries unlock new economic prosperity which enables more discoveries, in an explosive feedback loop. Some argue that technology/science have slowed down a lot recently, but I think that’s mostly because our best and brightest are too busy extracting economic value from our recent innovations (computers and, separately, the internet). Once that bounty has been consumed, more general technological progress will resume its previous course.
  • There is a natural limit on how fast social systems can evolve. Humans can adapt to living under radically different memeplexes, but not instantly, and somebody has to invent those memes first. When reality changes slowly this is fine, as it leaves plenty of time for a multiplicity of experimental memetic shifts in different groups, letting the best adaption dominate with high probability.
  • At some point in the future (possibly soon?) reality will start changing faster than our social systems can adapt. Our existing laws, customs, memes, and government will be out of equilibrium, but we will not have enough time to converge on a new social system before reality changes again. Society will fragment and human culture will undergo an intense period of adaptive radiation.
  • The countervailing force is technology’s ability to connect us (the “global village”) and equivalently the law of cultural proximity.

The Law of Cultural Proximity

[Not my area of expertise, but I would be surprised if the core thesis was wrong in a significant way. Probably not as original as I think it is. Based on a previous blog post of mine that went in a very different/weird direction.]


Currently, different human cultures have different behavioural norms around all sorts of things. These norms cover all kinds of personal and interpersonal conduct, and extend into different legal systems in countries around the globe. In politics, this is often talked about in the form of the Overton window, which is the set of political positions that are sufficiently “mainstream” in a given culture to be considered electable. Unsurprisingly, different cultures have different Overton windows. For example, Norway and the United States currently have Overton windows that tend to overlap on some policies (the punishment of theft) but perhaps not on others (social welfare).

Shared norms and a stable, well-defined Overton window are important for the stable functioning of society, since they provide the implicit contract and social fabric on which everything else operates. But what exactly is the scope of a “society” for which that is true? We just talked about the differences between Norway and the U.S., but in a very real sense, Norway and the U.S. share “western culture” when placed in comparison with Iran or North Korea. In the other direction, there are many distinct cultures entirely within the U.S. with different norms around things like gun control. The categories were made for man, not man for the categories.

However blurry these lines are, it might be tempting to assume that they get drawn roughly according to geography; it’s certainly reflected in our language (note my use of “western culture” already in this post). But this isn’t quite right: the key factor is actually interactional proximity; it’s just that in a historical setting geographical and interactional proximity were the same thing. Time for an example.

Ooms and Looms

Back in the neolithic era, the tribe of Oom and the tribe of Loom occupied opposite banks of their local river. These two tribes were closely linked in every aspect: geographically, linguistically, economically, and of course, culturally. Because the Ooms and the Looms were forced into interaction on such a regular basis, it was functionally necessary that they shared the same cultural norms in broad strokes. There was still room for minor differences of course, but if one tribe started believing in ritual murder and the other didn’t, that was a short path to disagreement and conflict.

Of course, neolithic tribes sometimes migrated, which is what happened a short time later when the tribe of Pa moved into the region from a distant valley. Compared to the Ooms and the Looms, the Pas were practically alien: they had different customs, different beliefs, and spoke a different language altogether. Unsurprisingly, a great deal of conflict resulted. One day an amorous Oomite threw a walnut towards a Pa, which was of course a common courting ritual among both the Ooms and the Looms. Unfortunately, the Pa saw it as an act of aggression. War quickly followed.

Ultimately, the poor Pa were outnumbered and mostly wiped out. The remaining Pa were assimilated into the culture of their new neighbours, though a few Pa words stuck around in the local dialect. Neolithic life went on.

In this kind of setting, you could predict cultural similarity between two people or groups purely based on geographic proximity. It was possible to have two very different peoples living side by side, but this was ultimately unstable. In the long run, such things resulted in conflict, assimilation, or at best a gradual homogenization as memes were exchanged and selected. But imagine an only-slightly-different world where the river between the Ooms and the Looms was uncrossable; we would have no reason to believe that Oom culture and Loom culture would look anything alike in this case. The law that describes this is the law of cultural proximity:

In the long run, the similarity between two cultures is proportional to the frequency with which they interact.

More First Contact

Hopefully the law of cultural proximity was fairly self-evident in the original world of neolithic tribes. But over time, trade and technology started playing an increasing role in people’s lives. The neolithic world was simple because interactions between cultures were heavily mediated by geographic proximity, but the advent of long-distance trade started to wear away at that principle. Ooms would travel to distant lands, and they wouldn’t just carry home goods; they would carry snippets of culture too. Suddenly cultures separated by great distances could interact more directly, even if only infrequently. Innovations in transportation (roads, ship design, etc) made travel easier and further increased the level of interaction.

This gradual connecting of the world led to a substantial number of conflicts between distant cultures that wouldn’t have even know about each other in a previous age. The Ooms and the Looms eventually ran into their neighbour the Dooms, who conquered and assimilated them both in order to control their supply of cocoa. The victor of successive conflicts, the Dooms formed an empire, developed new technologies, and expanded their reach even farther afield. On the other side of a once-uncrossable sea, the Dooms met the Petys; they interacted infrequently at first, but over time their cultures homogenized until they were basically indistinguishable from each other.

The Great Connecting

Now fast-forward to modern day and take note of the technical innovations of the last two centuries: the telegraph, the airplane, the radio, the television, the internet. While the prior millennia saw a gradual connecting of the world’s cultures, the last two hundred years have seen a massive step change: the great connecting. On any computer or phone today, I can easily interact with people from one hundred different countries around the globe. Past technologies metaphorically shrank the physical distance between cultures; the internet eliminates that distance entirely.

But now remember the law of cultural proximity: the similarity between two cultures is proportional to the frequency with which they interact. This law still holds, over the long run. However the internet is new, and the long run is long. We are currently living in a world where wildly different cultures are interacting on an incredibly regular basis via the internet. The result should not be a surprise.

The Future

[This section is much more speculative and less confident than the rest.]

The implications for the future are… interesting. It seems inevitable that in a couple of generations the world will have a much smaller range of cultures than it does today. The process of getting there will be difficult, and sometimes violent, but the result will be a more peaceful planet with fewer international disagreements or “culture wars”. A unified world culture also seems likely to make a unified world government possible. Whether the UN or some other body takes on this role, I expect something in that space to grow increasingly powerful.

While a stable world government seems like it would be nice, homogeneity has its pitfalls. There’s a reason we care about ecological diversity so much.

Of course in the farther future, human culture will fragment again as it spreads into space. The speed of light is a hard limit, and while our first Martian colony will likely stay fairly connected to Earth, our first extra-solar colony will be isolated by sheer distance and will be able to forge its own cultural path. Beyond that, only time will tell.

On Culturism

This post is the second of what will likely be a series growing out of my thoughts on Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”. The first is here.

Also, this post was extracted from a longer essay that’s still in the works. It’s meant to be foundational more than earth-shattering.

I want to promote a word that I just don’t hear a lot these days: culturism. Analogous to racism, sexism, etc., “culturism” can be roughly defined a couple of different (not necessarily exclusive or exhaustive) ways:

  • discrimination against someone on the basis of their different culture
  • the belief that one culture is superior to others
  • cultural prejudice + power

I want to promote this word, because I want to make a much stronger claim. I believe that all of the different *-isms (racism, sexism, etc) are just second-order mental shortcuts for culturism. And just like everyone’s a little bit racist, everyone’s a little bit culturist.

Now I’ve used “culturism” and “culture” in that claim, but really “behaviourism” might have been a better choice of word if it wasn’t already taken to mean something entirely different. Culture and behaviour is all tied together though, so I’m just going to stick with culturism and note a few places where my usage might not match the intuitive definition.

The easiest way to see how racism is just a shortcut for culturism is to ask an old-school racist what they hate about black people. The answers they give you don’t vary much: lazy, dirty, and rude are all words that pop up. But note that none of those things are actually about skin colour! For the most part, old-school racists don’t actually hate people with black skin per se; they hate people with undesirable behaviours. Does anybody actually want people to be lazy, dirty, and rude? The racist has just incorrectly associated those behaviours with skin colour (“dirty” isn’t technically a behaviour, but hygiene and grooming are both cultural-behavioural).

President Obama is a great example of how this plays out. He was black, but he conformed to the cultural and behavioural stereotype of an upper-class white man. He was not culturally black in any negative way, either in the old-school-racism meaning or in the more modern sense (inner-city gangs, etc). While he still received some negative attention from true racists, in this case the exception proves the rule: people reify their mental shortcuts all the time. It shouldn’t be surprising that if people grow up associating black skin with all these negative qualities, then some of them will forget the original association and just react negatively to black skin. Likewise it shouldn’t be surprising that if a scientist grows up in an environment where that prejudice is normalized, they’ll go looking for explanations and come up with weird ideas like craniometry.

Sexism is a similar story, with the only catch being that it feels weird to talk about men and women having “different cultures”. However, gender roles mean that at least historically, there were different expectations around how men and women would behave. This is all we need to connect the dots. What were the arguments for why women shouldn’t work? Because they were seen as emotional and weak, and those were undesirable qualities for someone who worked. It wasn’t about womanhood per se, it was about a false association between womanhood and undesirable behaviours and properties (women are still, on average, physically weaker than men, but we’ve learned to look at the individual for properties now, which is a whole other essay).

Now if I’ve done my job you’re likely nodding along, or at least willing to accept my premise for the sake of argument. But you may not really see why this would be important. Racism is still racism is still wrong, whatever the exact mechanism.

Here’s a hint at the kicker: even though we’re mostly not racist anymore, we’re still really really culturist. We are still prejudiced against people who are lazy, dirty, and rude. We’re not biased against emotional people only because being emotionally attuned has now become a desirable quality; instead we bias ourselves against people who close off their emotions and act coldly.

This will all tie back into Haidt and his concept of “moral capital” as soon as I finish that essay, I promise!

The Social Animal: Social Negotiation

(This post was supposed to go up last night. Oops.)

Over the last few posts we’ve talked about memes and culture and some of the interesting properties therein. This is the last post on that particular string; hopefully it is the one that ties them all together.

Human beings are intensely social creatures. We are constantly communicating with each other, sharing ideas and generating new ones. Most of us would find it intensely uncomfortable to spend even a single day with no outside contact. This heavy socialization is part of what makes memetics so interesting and so powerful; it is an integral part of how our human lives are structured.

The other side of that coin is the subtle realization of just how much of our lives is the result of that socialization. How many of our deeply-held ideas are socially constructed: are, in fact, memes. Let’s start with a big one: language. People already talk, in an unscientific sense, about language “evolving” as new words are coined and unused words die off. Scholars of language probably already know where this is going, but here it is anyways: any language is nothing more than a meme, or a collection of memes. These memes do evolve (for certain meanings of that word) through exactly the mechanisms we’ve already discussed in previous posts.

And because  this evolution is guided by human consciousness at least part of the time (for example, we can explicitly invent new words for new concepts), that makes this evolution also an exercise in negotiation. People try out new ideas, adopt parts they like and discard parts they don’t. They often then use these parts to synthesize a new idea, and broadcast that back into their social group. This is evolution, but the broader pattern resembles negotiation. The entire process could equally be described in terms of offers, counter-offers, compromises, etc.

I find this duality fascinating. Our ideas, our language, our culture have not just evolved the way they are;  they are the result of hundreds (or thousands) of years of social negotiation.

If you want to change the world, you may have to compromise with it along the way.

Culture, Memetics, and Lamarkian Inheritance

Having covered the brain and the mind, we now take a second sharp turn and head in the other direction, in a manner roughly paralleling our previous discussion of biology. This time, however, we will be discussing culture.

We start the concept of a meme, analogous to the biological concept of a gene. The precise definition of a meme is rather controversial, but the definition suggested by Wikipedia will do well enough for us. In fact, on skimming that article, it makes almost all of the points I wanted to make here. Go read it.

The other topic I wanted to cover here is Lamarkian Inheritance. Although it is no longer supported in biological genetics, it is a useful concept to have since it is in some part the method of transmission of memes.