The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Robin Hanson. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Robin Hanson. Robin is a professor of economics at George Mason University and a research associate at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. Robin has published over 90 academic titles yielding 5,834 citations just verified two minutes ago on Google which yields a citation x index of 35 which is pretty damn high and it’s well worth considering that the modal number of readers of a typical academic paper of an average academic paper, actually the modal number, the most common number, is zero.
So 5834, good job Robin in your career as an academic publisher. Now interestingly Robin was our first guest on the Jim Rutt Show way back yonder though due to a, I don’t know if it was a screw up, I don’t remember how it happened. Somehow he’s listed as EP number two in the show record and we talked about his two books, The Age of M and The Elephant in the Brain and despite the fact that I was just learning what the hell I was doing didn’t really know that much and was kind of dumb to try to do two books.
It’s still a quite interesting episode. If you want to hear Robin on his two books check out EP2. I first met Robin, must have been around 2001, 2002, 2003, something like that, when prediction markets were in the air, when Admiral Poindexter was trying to do something very smart which was to estimate terrorism threats via prediction marketplaces and of course it all went askew and Poindexter resigned and all that stuff but Robin was one of the first academics I could find at least who had written on the topic so I tracked him down and went and visited him over in his office at George Mason and we had a great talk.
And then finally the listeners of the Jim Rutt show know that I am obsessed with the Fermi paradox right, one of the things that just god damn it you know what’s the answer to that one of course we are creeping up on getting some more data on that but anyway in that space Robin’s got lots of ideas and he is the coiner of the phrase the great filter which in many ways kind of centres the analysis for a lot of us we think about all right where is the great filter is it in front of us or is it behind us or is it in the 2024 election. Anyway welcome Robin.
Robin: Great to be back Jim.
Jim: Yeah this would be fun. Robin has an amazingly broad range of interests and he also has a wonderful sub stack titled Overcoming Bias which originally was a blog which I think originally was actually a website way back yonder and to my mind one of the things that makes Overcoming Bias so good is Robin keeps his essays relatively short. He feels no need to bloviate endlessly like several other sub-stackers I could mention. Yes, talking about you Matt Iglesias yeah. I wish more sub-stack writers were like that. Anyway Robin has let fire a good cluster of essays on the topic of human fertility so before we start getting into some of the specific arguments you make, why is our fertility rate important.
Robin: Well, it’s a trivial fact that if we don’t have an average fertility above replacement i.e. 2 2.1 then we will shrink and go extinct. So at that very basic level it’s a requirement for long-term existence to maintain fertility above the threshold.
Jim: And of course the long trends on our reproduction increases in population found in one of the essays quite interesting it has gone down before you know the Bronze Age collapsing to have caused world population at least urban European population to reduce substantially. The fall the Roman Empire did the same the black death did a little fluctuation moderate but since about 1625 it’s been up up up and away exponentially.
Robin: Well, in France in the late 1700s they started their fertility decline and they were the first place in Europe to have a long sustained fertility decline and in fact, you know initially in say 1600 or something France was a huge percentage of Europe. It was like the China of East Asia most of the people who lived in East Asia lived in China and most of the people who lived in Europe lived in France but their lower fertility means that now France is only a minority of Europe, and they lost their prominence in part because they were the first European nation to have a fertility decline. And Europe of course is now losing its prominence worldwide as it has a fertility decline and as you mentioned we’ve repeatedly seen the same thing in history. Empires like the Greek Empire the Roman Empire they often had elite fertility decline is something they explicitly complained about and they never fixed those problems.
Jim: Yeah I just recently read a book about the Roman emperors and it’s amazing how many of them issued edicts trying to encourage fertility amongst the middle and upper classes and how it had no effect at all.
Robin: Right so that’s the sobering thing here we might think that if we could see a problem coming far in advance then of course we would do something about it but in history empires civilisations haven’t actually successfully done much about the fertility problems they saw whether they were elite fertility problems or entire population fertility problems.
Jim: Since world war two we have entered, and actually after the baby boom and you know accelerating to the 80s, in much of the world we have actually gone below the 2.1 replacement rate.
Robin: Most of the world is now below replacement fertility including of course China and India all of the Americas and the places that are above replacement fertility they’re on track to come down. So the basic there’s this just historical trend by as you get rich your fertility declines, and so you know, Central Asia and Africa have currently above replacement fertility but that’s just the poorest places because they’re poor and as they get rich we predict they will fall below replacement like everybody else does.
Jim: Let’s do a little side excursion here actually into some of your theories. You actually have a couple of competing theories on how income or wealth impacts fertility rate let’s start with the king and queens theory.
Robin: Right now let’s just, first important to notice our belief in declining fertility isn’t dependent on these abstract theoretical explanations of them. We just see declining fertility directly and we can see a lot of current social processes that are contributing to that. And that would be our most, if we’re going to say why won’t it just reverse the thing to point to would be the processes we now see that are pushing in the lower fertility direction but it’s still interesting to pause and ask is this just some random cultural trajectory that civilisation has taken that could happen or is there a more systematic explanation.
Because it’s suggestive that other civilisation’s have seen a similar fertility declines and so that suggests maybe there’s a more common larger scale explanation so I have two theories the first one I have less confidence in than the second but it’s more colourful and Richard and then you recently called it the king and queens theory I’m happy to go along with his name so the theory here is that kings and queens had especially potent fertility you know reproduction advantages like Genghis Khan apparently his DNA is in 2% of everybody in the world because he just had a lot of descendants.
Jim: William the Conqueror I recently discovered 30% of the people in Great Britain are descended to.
Robin: Right so, if at least some kings and queens have really outsized reproduction gains then it would make sense if you could be king or queen to think about whether you should try. So the idea is that people who were elite enough and well connected and just looked good enough in whatever ways were important to have a shot at being king or queen that it would be worthwhile for them to distract themselves from their other things to try to take a shot at that. And then the idea is that the main way most people would try to be king or queen would be to collect status markers that would make them seem apt for people to support as king or queen. And so you know for a man that might be fighting and reading well and being articulate and for a woman that might be poetry and knitting or whatever else it is.
But the key point is these things take time and resources if you you know aren’t king or queen but you are relatively well off and well connected and you might have a shot at you or your kid being king or queen then give it a shot. But the key idea is then it’ll probably cost you infertility that is you’ll have to instead of just having as many kids as you can as soon as you can you’re going to be investing in these status markers and that’ll distract you from fertility. But it could be worth the payoff if you could do that, now the strategy only makes sense for a limited population of people who have a shot and see the question is well how did evolution encode that either culturally or by DNA and the idea is well what you really wanted to look at is your relative status how much above everybody else were you but in fact if you just looked at your own wealth that would be a pretty good indication through most of history.
Because the average wealth hardly varied. So if you were just rich well fed comfortable etc lots of free time, well that would be a good indication that you had a shot at being king or queen you should invest more in the status markers that might give you a shot at that. And then, in the last few centuries we’ve all gotten rich so this heuristic is just misfiring terribly we all think we have a shot at being king or queen and so we’re all investing in status markers to give us a shot at this and this can’t be right. We don’t all have a shot we hardly have any such kings or queens anymore. So we’re all just terribly misfiring and that’s the king or queen theory is that we’re just following this heuristic of if you’re rich you probably have a shot at being king or queen so rein in the fertility and invest in all the usual status markers to give yourself a shot.
Jim: And this is essentially a inclusive fitness as payoff right that.
Jim: Probabilistically weighted inclusive fitness because you know even if you were the duke in England you know your chances of being king or you know got to be less than one in a hundred even during a turbulent period. So you’re making a hell of a large short-term loss and inclusive fitness for a very long shot chance of being you know William the conqueror Genghis Kahn least that’s what it seems like to me.
Robin: Right although if dukes do pretty well, then maybe you’re looking for people that take a shot at being duke.
Jim: That’s true, but your argument would be actually that if the draw is to be a king and queen because that’s where the real inclusive fitness payoff happens, that influence probably doesn’t work because once you become a duke then you’re sucked into the game of trying to become a king so the payoff may only happen when you’re a king.
Robin: Right so that’s theory number one i said i had two theories and the second theory i have a little more confidence in. And that’s just the idea that we tend to emulate the high status people that we see around us and their behaviour. For foragers who lived a very long time ago you know the high status people would have lots of kids and they would wouldn’t invest that much in each one because foragers really can’t do that too much to invest in their kids and they would you know be impressive hunters and well-spoken people around the fire camp and then people would emulate those things and in general that would promote fertility. But when our ancestors had a lot of property when they were elite enough to have a lot of property and then the status of their kids was determined to a large extent by how much they divided up their property to give to each kid.
Well now there’d be a selection effect where the ones who limited how many kids they have in order to give more property to each kid those people would just rise in the status rankings and when you looked at the top of the status rankings you would then see people who had low fertility there’d just be a selection effect there and then once people notice that selection effect then they would be copying it copying that behaviour which would strengthen it and then you get this runaway where at least among those with a lot of property they have low fertility and this has been reported consistently through history.
Elites for whom you much of the way they help their kids is inherits of property they have in fact limited their fertility and said explicitly historically this is why they were doing. So we have data about that in Japan and China and India and Roman Empire all through history and even the French a few centuries ago they all reported explicitly high status people said you gotta limit how many kids you have because otherwise your kid won’t be able to you know be high status you’ll fall out of the elites.
Jim: And of course there’s an interesting hack that came up in the late pre-modern period which is private geniture.
Robin: Right so that limits it but it doesn’t eliminate it that is the more kids you have the more resources you are going to devote to the non-central kid.
Jim: Though it might be 95 percent for the oldest male and five percent spread over the rest so.
Robin: When you have bride prices you’re going to have to pay a bride price for each of your daughters, and this is often why daughters were less common in the sense that they had basically exposed their kids and killed their babies so that they would select boys and they would just not have as many kids.
Jim: And of course we see, at least till very recently where I think maybe it’s converged back in, there was a big gender survival live birth differential in countries like China and India just in the last 30 years I got very large in both places.
Robin: Because they were trying to have the boys who they thought had a more promising future status.
Jim: Presumably it wasn’t infanticide but it was likely to be selective abortions right probably something infanticide.
Robin: Through most of history it was exposure so directly killing babies was less often done than just leaving the babies out in the wild somewhere where everybody knew that babies were left and you’re hoping somebody would come and take them, which they sometimes did for slaves. So this was a source of slavery was babies left to be exposed and if you wanted a slave and you’re willing to raise up a baby to make a slave then that was available.
Jim: And of course there’s lots of stories about shepherds finding the babies and raising them and all that good stuff and the greek stories and the jewish stories as well so yeah certainly was the thing. Now let’s step back a little bit your two theories are both driven by evolutionary theory and one is set in the forager epoch and the other is set in presumably the settled agriculture epoch at the earliest.
Robin: I think they’d both be in the subtle that is you don’t have kings or queens in the forage.
Jim: No correct so kings and queens is clearly in the I guess you’re right yeah they’re both in the settled question so presumably if they’re both have plausible evolutionary bases then probably we end up with a mixed regime where both influences are in play.
Robin: In principle it’s just a matter which seems like a stronger process. So my current guess is that second selection effect is just a more consistent stronger process that you can count on to produce changing behaviour.
Jim: Yeah. Let’s then move on to the next idea that you presented which I found interesting and one I had never thought about which was the claim that perhaps, it’s absolute levels of wealth rather than relative levels of wealth which trigger these.
Robin: Right. So for the property thing, it would be more about what fraction of your heritage is property. So foragers, very little of their heritage would be property. What do you give your kids? You know, you give your kids your name, you give your kids your genes, you give your kids some of your time, you give your social connections, and you give your kids property. When property is a small fraction of it, then you don’t have to worry so much about more kids dividing up the property. They divide up your time maybe, but not your property. But in a more rich agricultural world, the elites, more of their wealth passed on will be property.
And then you’ll see the selection effect for them. And now it doesn’t so much matter if, you know, how they encode their wealth, it’s a matter of if they’d be triggering off just what fraction of their inheritance is property. Although they might have triggered off of some wealth heuristic as a correlation with that. The Kings and Queens theory, I think is the one that relies more heavily on this mistake of misjudging your relative wealth by your absolute wealth.
Jim: And that’s what explained why the Kings and Queens effect is not just for Dukes and maybe the next level down over the hell they are, but could expand throughout the system, but frankly makes it a somewhat weaker argument, right? It requires that extra bit of mojo to make it spread more widely.
Robin: The other theory requires that our behaviour be contingent on the fraction of our inheritance that’s property.
Jim: Now let’s throw another actual datum in let’s say a country like the United States, only about 20% of adults have ever received an inheritance. And the median inheritance is about $10,000. So at least for the mass of population, inheritance effects are relatively trivial.
Robin: Right. But the question is, did we just evolve a habit of copying elites, and then doing what they did, even if it made less sense for us?
Jim: I mean, it essentially makes no sense for your average, you know, even your 50th percentile Americano, because they probably have never received an inheritance. If they did, it wasn’t transformational. And that’s an awful lot of facts to have to overcome with evolutionary theory.
Robin: In our world today, we invest a lot in education. And we do pay when we have more kids, it’s harder to put them through as many years of as elite school.
Jim: Keep in mind that the 50th percentile your kids don’t go to college.
Robin: Right. Here, I do think, you know, you’d have to be relying on this idea that people have just this habit of copying the what elites do, and that over time, when there’s more consistency of elites having fewer kids than people hear about that, and it drifts down to lower status. So there’s certainly an element over the last century or so whereby, say people who used to be very rural and live in rural areas and just live in a small rural life that doesn’t much care what happens in the cities or elsewhere.
Now people are just much more aware of what richer people do and how they live their lives. And they are much more eager to try to live their lives like those people. That is, they see on TV and in the newspaper, everything what elites are like, and they want to be like them. So they hear elites go to school a lot when they went their kids to go to school and, you know, et cetera, all the way down the line.
Jim: Now, of course, in succession, the billionaires had four kids, right? So there’s a little bit of pro-natalist propaganda going on. If that hypothesis is correct, we should see a birth spike from succession.
Robin: Well, they’re going to average over many models. That’s only one.
Jim: And of course, Elon Musk, he’s got nine or 10 kids. Nobody’s quite sure how many.
Robin: There’s not a TV show about him.
Jim: No, they’re funny to talk about him.
Robin: So, but in the history of fertility, we have some data points where we know about, say, the spread of radio in India or the spread of TV in Brazil. And we see spikes of falling fertility exactly when more people saw more radio or TV shows, which embodied lower fertility sitcoms and soap opera’s being described as idea lives.
Jim: I have to admit, I often joke with people who’ve had like their third or fourth kid, hey, I’m going to buy you people a TV.
Jim: Maybe it’s not memetic’s. Maybe it’s just time displacement.
Robin: Sure. There were time as part of it. But it’s definitely true that we’ve consistently seen TV shows and movies, etc. Presenting elites as low fertility.
Jim: So now let’s take this hypothesis and aim them at some of the real outliers. Like for instance, South Korea, it’s got a fertility rate, it just Googled it 0.83. I mean, what the hell?
Robin: They could see even lower than that now, actually.
Jim: That’s a going out of business curve in a hell of a hurry. You know, how do you get to a birth rate like that through memetic emulation?
Robin: I got to impose my usual discipline here. The first thing you should discuss is the trend. And the second thing is the outliers. The first thing to notice is how consistent a worldwide trend of felony fertility we have seen with increases in wealth. The key thing to notice is nations have been quite different. We don’t have a single world culture, that is, different parts of the world have had different cultures for a long time. Nevertheless, this overall trend has been pretty consistent. And even though some places have had temporary reversals, they haven’t lasted.
So the United States, for example, had after World War II a baby boom, and that lasted for a decade or two, and then went away. And you could have hoped, aha, see this trend has been reversed. It’s not inevitable, but yeah, it is. So different places are exceptions at different times, but the overall trend is pretty strikingly strong. And it suggests either there’s some fundamental cause that’s common across them, or they are being influenced by a shared world culture that is then that sharing is enough to induce this degree of commonality.
So even though South Korea is quite different than the rest of the world, they are still induced to go along. And that’s true of all the other places that, you know, France is the upper exception now in Europe, they have the highest fertility, even though they were first placed to have low fertility, but it’s still below replacement.
Jim: And then it’s Sweden’s right around the replacement rate also, as I recall.
Robin: I got to say, that just won’t last. If you look at this overall trend, the next thing you see after the overall trend is the correlates. Like one of the main correlates with falling fertility. So urbanisation has long been clearly one. Higher urbanisation, low religion, more education, especially female education, these are consistent trends that correlate with lower fertility, and they are consistent trends around the world. I mean, South Korea is pretty urban, it’s not very religious. They have a lot of female education there, right? I mean, these trends explain a lot of the exceptions.
Jim: What about a more micro explanation? Let’s say rather than a macro explanation, two simple things. Higher and higher survival rates for infants, children, to age 10, let’s say, and contraception.
Robin: So the fertility fall started long before modern contraception technology. The fall in all those ancient civilisation’s was long before modern contraception technology. Contraception just can’t be the main reason. Clearly, when people want to have a lot of kids, they succeed. So, you know, we’re going to talk a bit about say the Amish or the Haredi Jews, and even with modern contraception technology, they manage to have a lot of kids. So, clearly, contraception doesn’t force you to have few kids. And early on, when people saw basically first mortality declined and then fertility declined, and people generate the simple theory, ah, fertility decline is just a delayed reaction to mortality decline, and therefore, the target is just roughly replacement fertility.
And so, on that basis, for many decades, demographers predicted that fertility would never fall below replacement. And they were just wrong. Fertility has fallen well below replacement. And so, that sort of disproves the theory that what’s going on is just some delayed attempt to match fertility to mortality. In fact, there are clearly other strong forces going on about fertility that aren’t about reactions to mortality.
Jim: Yeah. And interestingly, the flip side of that trend is that for the longest period of time, the convergent outcome was damn close to replacement, right? Because the population growth was remarkably slow for thousands and thousands of years, even though the birth rates were very high. So, there was some process that was tending to converge towards just slightly above replacement when things were going well, and somewhat below replacement when things were going badly.
Robin: There’s a standard Malthusian argument about that, which just says, well, there’s this capacity of the economy, and you can’t grow population faster than the economy capacity. And so, if the capacity is growing very slowly, then population has to grow very slowly. So, there has to be this matching between births and deaths in order to maintain population level at the capacity of the economy.
Jim: Yeah, certainly over time, any new emergence will eventually reach the Malthusian limits. And again, if we look back to historical data, one of the fastest growing policies in world history was the United States,
Jim: From about 1740 to about 1840 or 1850, where we had a whole continent to grow into, but eventually we filled it up.
Robin: We had high fertility for a while and low mortality. And it took a while for the cultural influences to do this. But to me, the main interesting thing to talk about here is once we realise fertility is declining.
Jim: Yeah, that’s my next step. Let’s go to what does this mean? What are some of the implications here? Not only that fertility is declining, which is big, but also that it’s declining differentially.
Robin: Well, fundamentally, almost all the nations in the world are below replacement. The other ones are on track to be over replacement. So, the straightforward prediction is the population will peak and then start to decline. And the first thing to notice as an implication is that is the economy will then also peace and start to decline. And a key implication of that is, well, there’s a number of implications. So, one is that we start to lose scale economies in the world. As the economy falls by each factor of two, there’s a whole bunch of ways in which the division of labor has to fall by a factor of two in order to fit in that.
That means we’re going to start abandoning cities and cramming people into the remaining cities. It means we’re going to have to have a lot less variety in software. I wrote a post about software biting the world as people struggle to pay for all the fixed cost of software that they when they don’t have as many people to support it anymore. And of course, people have noted that it’ll be hard to pay for, you know, pay as you go retirement plans and you have a lot more old people.
Jim: Well, that’s an obvious one. That’s clearly a broken one. The pay as you go retirement plans. It’s amazing they’ve staggered as far as they have, but they’re going to be hitting a demographic wall here right soon.
Robin: Absolutely. And then just having an older population means it’s less innovative in many ways and it’s different in many ways and less war prone in many ways, which is I guess a good older population.
Jim: And less crimogenic for sure also.
Robin: But the biggest thing I got to point you to is innovation grinds to a halt. Once you realise how important innovation is to our society, this should be a real eye opener.
Jim: And I read that my eyebrows did go up and then I stopped and thought about it for a while, which one is it won’t grind to a halt. I think you actually even claim that it will essentially be linear with respect to population size.
Robin: Right. But if the population is declining exponentially, then innovation is declining exponentially.
Jim: Yeah. So the question is, is there a bottom if we’re going to zero, it doesn’t matter anyway.
Robin: Once the innovation is a factor of 10 smaller than it is at the peak, then basically, you know, it takes 100 years, what used to take 10 years.
Jim: And that’s where my next argument is because in some of the circles I travel and there is a advocacy for building the world population down to about 2 billion, which is the level at which you can live without artificial fertiliser, essentially organic farming, hippie dippies, that kind of stuff. I have some sympathy for that on some days. Monday, Wednesdays, and Fridays I’m sympathetic with that view.
Robin: We don’t have a process that will make it slow down and reach a level like that. That’s not how fertility decline is working.
Jim: Well, we don’t know. We’ve never seen absolute population decline. So I’m going to put forth that there could be a mimetic’s like, you know, absolute wealth. When you live in a society where population is declining, that may well actually, we don’t know, it’s conjecture.
Robin: We have seen that. So ancient Greece, its population overall was substantially declining from its peak of about 300 BC. And maybe the colonies had increasing population, but the whole of Greece had a dramatically declining population and that did not spur them into increased fertility.
Jim: On the other hand, after the Black Plague, fertility went way up.
Robin: Temporarily, you kill off half the population.
Jim: So let’s take this case. Again, this is the hippie dippy mud huts case, right? Population drops from 10 billion to 2 billion over 150 years or something, 160 years. And so let’s take the Hansen hypothesis that innovation is essentially linear to population. That would be one-fifth the innovation. However, to your point, innovation is exponential. So it’s just a matter of waiting a few more doublings to get to any given place. So it isn’t actually stealing our future. It just means it’ll take a little long.
Robin: It’s delaying a future, certainly.
Jim: But only a few generations, right? Because that’s the beauty of exponentials. If your r is greater than one, your exponent is greater than one, you get to as big a number as you want within a finite time.
Robin: So first of all, our modern society has done many things to promote innovation. And that’s because societies have felt threatened that if they didn’t innovate enough, they would be outcompeted by other nations. And that’s been a real force in the last few centuries. Once innovation declines a lot, that becomes much less of a force. And so societies will be less eager to promote innovation. If they have other priorities that they will take over innovation, they may be willing to do that because innovation is just less of a thing.
Jim: Well, yeah, it’s actually interesting. The math of that, I think, does work. Because the amount of new innovation per unit of time relative to the total intellectual property goes down as the total innovation rate goes up. So that could make the salience of innovation rate less powerful. I buy that.
Robin: But to me, the most important thing to notice here is that there are subcultures in our world today, small but consistent, who have had highly insular, highly fertile cultures that have maintained high fertility.
Jim: Yeah, that’s the variance part.
Robin: So for example, the Amish in US have doubled every 20 years, four century, they’re now 300,000 exceeding people. If they do that for another two centuries, then they become 300 million people.
Jim: And I’ve read the number that if the ultra orthodox Israelis continue to reproduce at the rate which they’re reproducing, which is even higher than the Amish, I think, in the 350 years, there’ll be a quarter of all people on earth.
Robin: We don’t know if any of these will succeed at that in a simple way. They probably have stumbling points where they’ll diverge and some of them will succeed in keeping it in some of them won’t. But still, if we look across the earth, these are the places to bet on as the most likely to be the ones who dominate future populations.
Jim: You know, again, one could argue that the same great forces that you talk about will eventually come to bear on these more insular communities. But perhaps not, you know, if the Amish, it turns out the Rutt’s were originally Amish way back yonder. They migrated to the United States around 1690 after being almost wiped out in the 30 years war. And, you know, fortunately, my group became apostates around 1890 and drifted off elsewhere, but there’s still a bunch of Rutt’s, you know, in the Mennonite and Amish communities.
Robin: Maybe they’ll let you back in.
Jim: Ha ha ha. Now I don’t have no desire to have nine kids or no electricity. How would I get my computer to work with that electricity? That would suck, right?
Robin: This is, I think, the fundamental thing to ponder. If the best bet for who’s going to win in the future in terms of eventually reversing the decline in population and having a growing population are these insular, fertile, fundamentalist religious subcultures, then if you want to influence the future, you have to think about how to influence those groups.
Jim: Or, actually, when I first read your first essay on this, I sent it to some of the folks in our Game B community, which is kind of a high tech hippie-dippy community. And I said, should we consider making Game B a high fertility ethos? You know, that says, all right, you know, there’s a lot of ways to win. One of the ways is to have eight kids eat.
Jim: Probably a bad idea for a bunch of reasons, but there could be other cults, shall we say, that choose high fertility plus high technology, for instance.
Robin: The rate at which these insular high fertility subcultures have arisen in the last few centuries has been very low. They don’t appear very often. So the rate at which people have successfully created them is low, even though there have been a high rate of people trying to make various weird cults, of course, many of them fertility cults, many of them sex cults, right? It’s very common.
Jim: Yeah, leader-driven sex cults, right?
Robin: Right, but it’s a hard thing. Obviously, I hope there’s people are inspired to try more, but again, you gotta go with the base rates when you try and estimate how hard things are. You gotta say, look, very few have succeeded at this. There’s the few successes we see and there’s lots and lots of failures. So I hope more people try and succeed at this, but first you gotta estimate your odds to be low. And secondly, you gotta realise you’re gonna have to be a lot like them. Maybe you don’t have to be all the way like them, but a lot. So for example, there are Mennonite groups in the US who are high fertility, but some of them have gone to higher tech. And then the question is, will they succeed at that? Or will that somehow fail to affect? So what we need is a theory of how these things work. And I think we have that roughly.
I think the key thing to keep your eye on is the insularity. That is, we’re part of this huge world culture and most of us are so integrated into the world culture that even if you and I have, you know, different kids and grandkids, those kids will then mix in with the rest of the culture and they won’t perpetuate a different style of doing things. It’s these very insular cultures that have been able to resist the outside influence and most of their weird choices can be understood in terms of their insularity. So for example, most of them are pacifist, but that’s mainly I would say because they don’t want their young men going off and mixing with other young men in a war that they tend to assimilate the other young men’s culture there and they’re trying to keep them, which means that when they’re big enough to have their own military divisions, they won’t need to be pacifist anymore. It’s because they’re so small that they need to be pacifist.
You know, there are other things, they’re rural, they tend to be rural, even the Amish don’t even like cars. What’s not to like about cars? Well, cars let you mix with people and they very consciously say, now we don’t want to mix with people and that’s why we don’t allow cars, which of course, why they don’t allow internet, phones, etc. They’re happy to use, you know, modern engines and other sorts of things on the farm. And so it’s not like they’re just crazy anti-technology. They are just hypersensitive about their insularity, which makes sense given that it’s so hard to maintain insularity in the face of our very strong world culture. And that of course, explains why urban people are so much lower fertility in urban world. Not only is it more expensive to have kids, but you’re mixing so much more thoroughly in with the rest of the world culture. And it’s really hard to deviate.
Jim: At least it would say that the ability to build counter-trends to the great forces is almost non-existent in an urban context. But you still need to have the macro trends to explain why the fertility rates have fallen so low.
Robin: Right. So different cultures have different fertility and then there’s the insularity that affects how much they affect each other. And so in order to win, you need a highly insular, highly fertile culture. Achieving high fertility isn’t easy, but that’s probably actually easier than achieving the insularity. It’s the insularity that’s the really hard part.
Jim: And think about some actual examples. I, despite the fact that ruts escaped their amish or old order Mennonites, which are more or less the same thing as Amish, I now live in a place with lots of Mennonites and lots of Amish. So I can see the variations and they go all over the place. A friend of mine is a senior engineer at character.ai. Mennonite, right? On the other hand, here in our county, we have Amish who are absolute no cars, no phone people. And we’ve got plenty of people in between. There’s plenty of Mennonites here in the county now that have cars.
They’re a very fractious bunch. The 350,000 or so Mennonites in Amish in the United States are broken up into about 500 sexts because they followed the conflict with each other constantly. And so there’s one group called the Black Bumper Mennonites that you’re allowed to have a car, but it has to be painted black, including the bumper, right? So back in the days when bumper sand chrome shows how old I am, right? The Black Bumper Mennonites, while others say, okay, you can have a car any colour you want, as long as it’s a dark colour and not a fancy one.
There’s a complete extreme. What I haven’t seen, and this would be interesting to validate your hypothesis, is compare the birth rates by the various spectra of anabaptists versus the tightness of their social membrane.
Robin: I have seen studies of just religion in general that show religions that ask more of their members are more tightly bound and can more rely on each other. And so that does seem like the spectrum here. That is, the high fertility groups are the ones that are making the highest demands on their members, and not only demanding high fertility, they’re demanding a lot of other things. And as you notice, they fragment into tiny groups, and apparently part of what allows them to work well is their small size, typically a group of 100 or so, is the number of people. And then if they get too big, they split into 200 groups.
Jim: Robin Dunbar would have an explanation for that one.
Robin: Absolutely. But it shows that they have more problem with larger-scale social organisation. That is, that tends to apparently be an obstacle to the degree of insularity and devotion that they get out of having a smaller group. And there’s plenty of room on the margin for these smaller groups in the world. So they are succeeding in that.
Jim: That is interesting. And the technical decision, even if they’re all within the same sect, is made at the parish level. The famous example is milking machines, right? Apparently the Old Order, Mennonites, and Amish debated for years at the parish level, 25 families or so, whether milking machines were contrary to Amish’ism or not, and some went one way and some went the other. Because to your point earlier, they do not claim that these are theological, right? They do not claim, Yahweh said we shall not have milking machines. Rather, it is a kind of a measure of cultural appropriateness or something like that that leads them to these decisions.
Robin: For example, obviously they mostly want to have access to doctors and they’d like to have doctors in their community. But a problem is that doctors go off and get trained by mixing with other cultures. And often it’s the doctors that have the most trouble retaining in their community because they’ve been exposed to the larger world culture. So even with a milking machine, if you have to go send off your guy who runs a milking machine and repairs it to some college for teaching people how to do milking machines.
Now that’s a risk to the community that those people will get infected by the outside culture and not come back, etc. So that’s some of the main issues with respect to technology. It’s about what social contact does adopting a technology imply. If they could just buy the machines and have somebody repair them, etc. They’re much more okay with just getting some machines that work. That doesn’t risk them connecting with the world.
Jim: Perhaps a conjecture from that is Amish should be okay with Amazon. Get stuff without mixing with people. I’m gonna have to, because I say we have plenty of Amish here in the county. Next time I run into one, I’m gonna ask them, what do y’all think of Amazon? Of course they’ll probably say, what’s that? Because since they don’t have computers, they don’t have Amazon.
Robin: They don’t want people to get expensive tastes, basically.
Jim: They call themselves the plain people.
Robin: Right. So Amazon for your milking machine repair stuff, that’s probably fine. Amazon for some like doily, because you saw it in a catalog, that’s probably not so fine, because you’re, you know, you’d be mixing with the world culture to see the catalog to get the doily, right? So it’s less about you ordering the thing and more about what culture were you immersed in to even see the thing that you might have wanted it to.
Jim: All right, let’s do a melange here. Let’s take your perspective that for the mass of the world, fertility is going down and it includes the outliers like Central Africa and parts of Central Asia. And so we’ll have an aggregate decline of our population for an unpredictably long period of time. And there will be some nodules that resist that trend and continue to grow exponentially. Let’s just play the fun and games. What happens over the next couple hundred years as that plays out?
Robin: So the dominant world economy loses scale economies. Software bites whoever love themselves to depend on software because the price of software would keep going up. Price of maintenance will keep going up until you either have to quit or go bankrupt when you buy it. Cities will empty out. That is, you know, if you just uniformly depopulated and everybody stayed in the same cities, then cities would just have a much higher infrastructure cost which makes more sense to just abandon some cities and concentrate into fewer. And that’s what did happen, say, in ancient Greece when the population declined there.
They just abandoned many cities and clustered in the remaining ones. Scale economies go down, obviously, so product variety in the world goes down. But the world probably stays pretty rich. So we don’t ever reach the point where they’re so poor they have high fertility again because of being poor. And we have these insular subcultures rising and a key question is, will the dominant world culture decide to be offended by these rising alternatives cultures and crush them? Because for a long time, that’ll be an option.
For a long time, these things will just… So at the moment, even the US, it’s actually kind of remarkable to me how much freedom, say, the Amish get to do things differently in ways that we wouldn’t really allow most other people to treat their children differently that way. Like, you know, we have, you know, social services come and ask whether you’re treating your children right. The sort of way Amish parents treat their children would probably usually not be okay for most other people. It’s only because they’re in the separate community that they’re being treated differently.
Let’s talk about the main trends that are in the world today causing low fertility. Those trends will increase and we may get even more moralistic about them and then be forced them on these outliers. So trends are increasing years of education, increasing sort of capstone marriages instead of cornerstone marriages where we, instead of like marrying somebody early and then forming yourself with them over the coming decades, you have to wait to, you are fully formed and become a very specific, successful person and then you look for someone to mate with and then you decide to have kids. We’re greatly raising our standards for parenting. So, I mean, I can see that with my grandkids. Maybe you can too. They just insist on putting a lot more time and effort into each kid than we did.
Jim: Compare kids’ birthday parties. There’s a good one for you. The grandkids’ birthday parties become three ring circuses. Like at a level that’s like hard to imagine.
Robin: Right. We also just have changing norms of less parental involvement and picking your partners and deciding how you raise kids and being involved in your careers. There’s a whole bunch of trends that are moving against fertility and that we’re really proud of and that we often embody in laws. So if you have a couple splitting up and who gets the kids, it’s often determined in part by who is giving enough time to their kids. So we embody the modern high effort parenting standards into who gets kids in a split breakup. And that’s just going to continue. So, I mean, first of all, as the world gets more integrated, the whole world together is going to move in those directions.
And the question is how much will we tolerate these deviations as they get larger and more threatening? That is, as long as they’re cute and small little places you could go visit as a holiday, fine. But as they become a larger percentage of the population, they’re already seeing that issue in Israel at the moment. You know, in 1948 or whatever. where the Orthodox Jews were such a tiny fraction, nobody said, fine, you guys can have the following.
Jim: Yeah, weird little exceptions. You don’t have to serve in the military, all that stuff.
Robin: Right, but now that they’re an eighth of the population and growing, now the question is, well, should they still get all these exceptions? And they’ll have to work that out. And but, you know, that’ll happen with the Amish in the US and other places in the world. I worry that some money won’t wanna squash them, basically. And someone’s like, no, we shouldn’t, we just can’t allow those people to abuse their children by not giving them enough attention or sending them to school enough.
Jim: They don’t have a smartphone, that’s child abuse, right? You can imagine that argument being made in some places.
Jim: In the current state of the West, people like the Amish are well protected by the rule of law and constitutional protection for religion. How well that holds up to times of crisis and stress is hard to say.
Robin: They were pretty arbitrary court rulings that gave the Amish and the Mennonites the protections they have. If you look at when they happened, it didn’t have to go that way. And certainly in Europe, it doesn’t go that way. These are arbitrary sort of US rulings. They could easily be reversed.
Jim: I suppose the other thing to consider from the macro perspective is in both cases, the ultra-Orthodox Israelis and the Anabaptists and closely related parties are also low on innovation.
Robin: Right, and religious cultures in general are low innovation. And that would hurt them now. They are still growing much faster than everybody else now. And in a world of low innovation, it will hurt them much less. So in the intervening centuries pause where there’s hardly any innovation, then the fact that they are anti-innovation will not be much of a penalty for them growing.
Jim: Yeah, the comparative disadvantage of being low tech or at least low Delta tech will be smaller. The distance will still grow. Because even if the innovation rate’s low, if the adoption rate is lower than the innovation rate, then the gap between the average tech of mainstream versus non-mainstream communities will actually grow over time, even at a declining innovation rate.
Robin: But the fact that they have much higher fertility is just gonna overwhelm all those other things. That is sure on some margin, they’re sacrificing because they are lower tech, but just consistently having more kids. So even today, again, the Amish double every 20 years. That means each of these communities on average splits every 20 years. And that’s a huge thing to do.
That is they have to go find a whole new place of land, clear it, build all their buildings, schools, everything, and start there every 20 years. And they’ve been doing that successfully for a century. So that requires a lot of capital investment, a lot of entrepreneurship, a lot of independence and initiative. And they’ve successfully been doing that for a long time. And it looks like they’re on track to keep doing that for a long time.
Jim: Yeah, the Mennonites have been here in our county for about 20 years. The Amish about six or seven years, but you can see more and more of them coming. And they come in groups, right? And a bunch of them in one house for a while. Then they go buy farms as they come on the market that are appropriate. They buy houses as they come on the market.
Robin: So they’re certainly not averse to change in that sense, right?
Jim: Exactly, right.
Robin: Because they are embodying a lot more change than most people experience in terms of starting whole new towns and groups very rapidly.
Jim: Now, let’s talk about another one that you mentioned in passing is the distinction between the capstone marriage and the cornerstone marriage. That actually did reverse during the baby boom. The age of first births went way down. It had reached a pretty high number by the 30s, and then it fell down to about 21, I believe, by the early 50s. Why would we not expect that necessarily to reverse?
Robin: Well, my understanding is the best explanation for the baby boom after World War II was the destruction of the wars. And it happened not just in the U.S., but in lots of war-torn areas. It was actually started earlier from the destruction of World War I. It was a limited thing due to the limited disturbance of the war. So unless we keep doing big wars soon, it’s not really a solution. And fortunately, we’re not looked like in decline. We’re going to do a lot of big wars soon. So maybe in Ukraine at the moment, there’s going to be a baby boom in southern Russia, too.
Jim: Interestingly, both Russia and Ukraine have very low fertility rates, like about 1.15, something like that.
Robin: It’s plausibly part of the Israeli fertility, as they have been so consistently threatened and feeling threatened by outsiders for a while. But it’s mainly their orthodox that have the high fertility in Israel.
Jim: I think the overall fertility rate is about three in Israel, which is pretty high.
Robin: Right. But the non-orthodox fertility rate is about replacement, I think.
Jim: That makes sense. All right. Well, what else is worth talking about with respect to fertility, fertility trends and what we might see?
Robin: So we’re part of a culture that shares a sense of status, that is a sense of what’s impressive and what we respect. And we respect people who are Nobel Prize winners and billionaires, you know, Oscar winners and people who do startups and things like that. And that makes sense that as a culture, we have a shared concept of what we respect. And so when I see that our shared culture is declining and going away and there’s these very different cultures that are going to win, I’m tempted to have to reevaluate what I respect. I got to look at these winners and go, damn, like I misjudged them. I need to look at that and say, what in that do I respect?
Because there’s something in that I got to respect. There’s something in there that I got to bow and say, hats off, you’re achieving something the rest of us can’t. And I feel like I and many of us should be reevaluating what we respect. What in a culture is worthy of emulation and value and gossiping about? Because I need to somehow orient around these winners and if they are going to be the winners or whoever wins will be somebody who copied a lot of what they have, even if they aren’t them, then we need to be thinking about, well, what is it about these groups that’s working so well and what about them can we celebrate?
Jim: And sounds like what you’re talking about specifically is high birth rates.
Robin: But that’s enabled by a bunch of other things. And so you have to ask, okay, how do they achieve these high birth rates? What about that can I admire and respect?
Jim: Or could you turn it the other way and say, this is what our Game B movement looks at, is what are the macro aspects of our current culture, which we call Game A, that results in this emergent result and maybe change that?
Robin: So if I was on the border of the Roman Empire long ago and the Romans came and conquered my area, I’d have to go, damn, those Romans got something. And I’d want to understand the Romans and figure out what it is they have and how can my people figure out how to get that, right? And all say their Japanese did a similar thing. Europeans came around and pressed the heck out of them and they said, let’s figure out how to learn from this.
Jim: We need a opression army and they built one.
Robin: Right. So the Japanese were really quite impressive at turning and learning. And that’s something I feel like we need to start doing now here once we realise that they’re gonna win. Even if they haven’t won yet, we need to start going, okay, how’d they do that? And how can we respect that in a way that would give us a chance of copying and assimilating whatever they have that wins?
Jim: Yeah, that was sort of what I alluded to earlier. The idea of creating high coherence, relatively small communities that are able to distance themselves from the force fields that suppress fertility in the mainstream culture and yet don’t necessarily reject technology.
Robin: When I was a kid, I joined a cult.
Jim: All right.
Robin: Okay, a religious cult when I was a tween. And over the years, I’ve met a lot of people in cults and I’ve loved their passion and their energy and their willingness to think about things differently. But I’ve always lamented and going, but come on, your weird beliefs can’t compete with the mainstream beliefs of the world. You’re just wrong about stuff, guys. You should admit it. Like I’ve become an academic. I’m a professor. I read the literature. I have come to respect this sort of large academic and thought literature of the world and said, you gotta kind of believe what the experts believe. Cause if you’re just in some small group making up your own strange crap, you’re probably just wrong.
And I still kind of think that, but I go, oh, when you’re in this small group making up your own crap, you can be insular and you can defy the world convention, which mostly you shouldn’t accept on this one thing of fertility where I guess you shouldn’t, that seems to count more than everything else. Like I have to re-weigh things. I have to go, oh, this thing that makes you lose on a whole bunch of dimensions makes you win on one key dimension that I was neglecting. And now I got to reorganise my whole priorities to say, okay, damn, I got to respect you. Cause you’re winning on this one key thing, even if you’re losing on a whole bunch of other dimensions.
Jim: So again, I’ll repeat it again. I’ll come back at it again. So is the hypothesis here that we should be investing in finding ways to build somewhat insular membrane-ish ways of living that allow those membranes to do the things that you guys like, you and I like, but also have a higher fertility rate.
Robin: We need to find a way to promote insular high fertility cultures that can maybe have a better mix of not crazy, but also motivating people to be there. So I get that when they have crazy sounding beliefs that drives them together, they are bonded together, they feel more together and they’re more motivated. That’s a good thing, yes. I just wish it didn’t have to go with so much crazy. So that’s my hope. Can we find a way to make less crazy, dedicated small insular subcultures that less crazy about tech in particular?
Jim: That’s interesting. Yeah, now there is a fellow who’s been on the show a few times and is part of our broader community. Gay named, John Vervaeke. He’s a professor at University of Toronto in philosophy and cognitive science. And he has been promoting an idea called the religion that is not a religion. And through his studies, he’s kind of a, one of these spiritual dudes, unlike me, right? And thanks to all that’s real important in all beliefs and communities of practice.
And he studied the neuroscience of, you know, things like singing together and dancing together and eating together. And so his contribution to our Game B hypothesis is that something like the religion that’s not a religion, essentially custom design by each community could indeed start to provide some of that coherence building that we totally lack in the modern world. And that was again, to my question to some of the people that we work with when I read your article, should we consider building fertility explicitly into the least variance of the religion that’s not a religion? I’m hearing that your answer might be yes.
Robin: Yeah, but it’s just gonna be skeptical about consciously building religions. You know, I’ve known people for many decades who have said, religions are great, except they’re crazy. Let’s just make a rational religion. And they consistently fail at that in pretty pathetic ways.
Jim: Because they call it a religion, right? And this is, I think Vervaeke is smart. He says it’s the religion that’s not a religion and specifically abjures any metaphysical nonsense.
Robin: One of the reasons that these small and solar subcultures are typically fundamentalist religion is they have to create the impression that they have no choice. There’s not a choice going on about what religion to believe in or what beliefs to have about things. There’s just the truth handed down for centuries and that makes them just accept it. And that’s the hard part. How to make it seem so compelling to a small insular group that whatever the thing you’re telling them to do is just the thing to do and they should not question it and not challenge it and reexamine it and just accept it.
Jim: And it’s hard to have that mindset and also be somebody playing fluently in the world of innovation.
Robin: But through history, many people have factored their mind that way. They’ve had the sacred part they don’t question and the technical parts they innovate in. And that’s apparently a kind of ability we need to develop.
Jim: I guess, I guess. As somebody who never went through a religious cult phase, quite the contrary, I raised a Catholic but had an epiphany when I was 11 after spending two weeks in the library reading books on comparative religion, I concluded it was all bunk and it was clearly institutions built by humans for the purpose of controlling other humans.
Robin: That was an admirable, smart thing for you as an individual to do, but it doesn’t seem very functional for an insular fertile subculture to do. So that’s how I have to reevaluate what I’m impressed by. I have to be less impressed by this.
Jim: But maybe for Vervaeke on to something, maybe guys like me and other people who utterly reject non-material explanations for things. Because I am a complexity guy, so I do think it’s a mistake to be materialistic. There is emergence at higher levels and they’re just as real as an electron. The fact that I decide to pursue Mary Beth at the pub does not violate their law of physics, but it’s not about physics, right? It’s something else.
Robin: We still need a way to tell a member of an insular fertile subculture, you need to be fertile, there’s no choices, you don’t reevaluate this on what you want. There is this authority we’re handing you which insists on it, you shouldn’t question it. It has the weight of tradition and unquestionable authority. How do you do that and also let them innovate on other technical margins? That’s the great question of our future, honestly.
Jim: All right, so anyone’s got the answer, reach out to me or to Robin and tell us how we do that. Cause you know, he makes a pretty compelling case that if we look at a declining population, declining innovation over a long period with no obvious bottom, while there are rejectionists who are reproducing exponentially, might not be all that pretty. As I think on the email I sent out to Robin when I first reached out to him, I said, hmm, Armageddon, Amish versus ultra orthodox at the end game 350 years from now, that doesn’t look too pretty.
Robin: The future doesn’t have to look pretty. Our job as analysts is just to make our best guess whether it’s pretty or not.
Jim: And we can’t guarantee the future. All right, well thank you again, Robin Hansen for an amazingly interested conversation.
Robin: Nice to talk to you again, Jim.