Transcript of EP 235 – Robin Hanson on Beware Cultural Drift

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’s been a frequent guest on the podcast, starting as my very first victim when I had not clue one what I was doing or whether I would enjoy doing it. And he was extremely gracious and we had a wonderful conversation. Somehow in our somewhat incompetent early production process, he ended up as EPII at the Jim Rutt Show, but he was actually the first episode that I recorded. He was also on for a COVID Extra on COVID-19 strategies with Robin Hanson, current 011 on Right Talkism, current 16 on Are We Living in a Simulation?, and EP213 on Declining Fertility rates. If this conversation triggers interest, knowing more about Robin’s thinking, check it out. And as always, this and links to some other things of Robin’s, like his books and what have you, will be on the episode page at Check it out. All right, welcome Robin.

Robin: Hello, Jim.

Jim: Yeah, I’m looking forward to having our conversation today. I reached out to Robin as soon as I read an essay that he recently wrote and had published in Quillette. And it’s called Beware Cultural Drift: Thoughts on Modernity’s Monoculture Mistake. It is quite interesting because it’s quite broad. A lot of things you write tend to be on one thing. Boom, drills the hell out of one thing.

Robin: This is one thing, it’s just one big thing.

Jim: Okay, let’s start there. What is the one big thing?

Robin: Well, you and I are old men. And a thing that old people find out is that by the time they’re old, the world has changed, and it changed in some ways we thought was perfectly reasonable, people build new houses and freeways and invent new gadgets, but then it also changes in its culture and even apparently in its deepest values.

Jim: Yeah, that’s why old guys say, “Goddamn kids today.”

Robin: That’s shocking really. If you think about what a civilization needs to function, you might think you would easily change small things that didn’t have a lot of things relying on them, but the more fundamental something was, the more deeper it was, the more other things were built on it, then the more breaking it could destroy everything, the more careful we would be with changing those things. For example, people are very reluctant to rip out the entire phone system and make a whole new phone system. That would be expensive and who knows what other things depend on … Or our political system, we’re reluctant to change the basic nature of two legislatures and how they’re elected on all those things, in part because we’re stuck in a fight but also just because we’re worried. It seems to be going well and we’d mess up with it.

Jim: There’s lots of examples like that where you could see obvious ways to improve, but how do you change the engine in the flying jet?

Robin: We are rightly cautious about changing things that a lot of other things are built on top of and that maybe we don’t fully understand and that would be a big cost to change. And then you get to what should be the most fundamental things on which most things rely, on which if you messed it up, you would most have the risk of hurting everything, which is our most fundamental values? And then you see that we are actually in a world humans are built such that we change that somewhat with abandon. We eagerly change our values about work and about family and about death and about international relations in just a large number of ways. If you look at it in detail, we are just changing our values in big ways. And now typically, those value changes are the end of a fight where different factions were trying to pull in different directions. And the winners of the fight want to celebrate it. And they’ve got stories about why we should all be really happy with the direction we went, the fight that they wanted. And the question is, how much can we trust that?

Jim: All right, let’s stop right there and then let’s go back and actually work through the essay. Also, I guess it’s worth pointing out that this phenomena of things constantly changing underfoot that seem fundamental is almost certainly relatively new, at least in the context of Western culture.

Robin: The rate of change is certainly much faster, and that should also scare us. Maybe you thought, “Well, the world’s always been changing, I guess it’s worked out okay. Let’s keep changing.”
No, no, no. This rate of change is pretty unprecedented, so you shouldn’t be too comfortable just because of that.

Jim: We think about in the West, the period from 600 A.D. to maybe 1400 A.D., change was right slow. You wouldn’t see much change at all in a lifetime of a typical human. And since then, the rate of change has continued to ramp up to the point now where we don’t even quite know how fast the change is coming because we’re somewhere at the steepening part of the exponential. At least it certainly feels that way.

Robin: Although if the world was just changing by giving us more options, by giving us more technology or kinds of foods we could buy or kinds of transport we could use, we might not mind that much. If our options were rapidly changing and prices were rapidly falling, “Well, bring it on.”
… you might say. But if we’re changing our fundamental values and fundamental relationships rapidly, that just looks more scary, at least to an old man.

Jim: Yeah, it may just be us, “God dammit, get off the lawn. You kids with the blue hair.”
Let’s go all the way back to the top now, and you actually started with a quote from Herodotus, “Everyone without exception believes his own native customs and the religion he was brought up in to be the best.”
Well, that was probably true in 440 B.C., and it was substantially true for much of American history but I’d suggest starting around 1960, that center stopped holding.

Robin: Well, people give lip service to not respecting their culture, but they’re lying. People today really do embrace the dominant culture of our society and they embrace it strongly. And when people seem to go against it, they are really outraged and willing to cancel people and to bring every tool they can to bear against people who go against our dominant culture. I’d say in fact, they really do think the dominant world culture today, what most elites are pretty embedded in, is the best. And they’re strongly convinced that any other things not only are worse but should be vigorously repressed.

Jim: Yeah, that is … Actually, I saw a funny meme someplace yesterday, which was, “Yeah, the wokies believe in diversity in everything except diversity in belief.”
Something like that.

Robin: In fact, there’s this concept of boutique multiculturalism of an essay from Stanley Fish from many decades ago, where he rightly points out that a lot of our dominant culture thinks of itself as embracing many cultures. But what they really want to do is embrace lots of kinds of food or clothes or holidays or places to travel. They don’t really want to embrace different fundamental values about say, gender or family or religion or things like that. Those things are not part of the multiculturalism.

Jim: Yeah. At least at the top level. And then of course, you could have another discussion of is it one culture or two currently contending? And the United States today, it feels a lot like two very evenly balanced ones that are quite different.

Robin: Well, they’re evenly balanced in some arenas like national politics because democracy ensures one person one vote. In our dominant cultural institutions, mass media, academia, law, government agencies, there isn’t an equal balance.

Jim: On the other hand, if the shit really comes to pass on the kinetic side, I might bet on the other side.

Robin: Well, if we would have a civil war perhaps but we’re probably not.

Jim: Though that movie I guess, has just come out, I’m looking forward to seeing it, where apparently they don’t have any plausible story of the cause but the horror of the actual being embedded in the Civil War apparently is pretty vivid.

Robin: I look forward to seeing it too.

Jim: Yeah, I know you’re a movie guy. You’re often posting little snippets about movies and such like that.

Robin: I do, I like movies.

Jim: Yeah, me too. All right. Now let’s get back into the meat of the essay. In the past, we perhaps had some reason to trust our cultural values as they existed. Why was that?

Robin: Well, this process by which we have cultures and that our cultures change is the human superpower really, it’s the thing that’s allowed humans to excel compared to other animals, even other animals with similarly sized brains. It’s not so much that we’re smart, it’s so much that our smartness allowed cultural evolution. But this cultural evolution is a new thing, it’s crude compared to anciently evolved things like hearts and muscles and other systems. And it just goes wild a lot. But say a few centuries ago, the world had hundreds of thousands of cultures because each little peasant community was basically its own little culture who could go its own way. And they did go wrong a lot actually but they were near subsistence, there were frequent pandemics, there were military invasions. If they made very many mistakes, they would just lose out compared to alternatives. Selection disciplined culture for a very long time up until recently, and that’s what saved culture from these problems of rapid changing and going into a crazy place.

Jim: And so today, at least at the top level … It’s interesting, the top level and the individual levels, multi-level selection is always an interesting question. Your argument would be, somewhat paradoxically as you say, the fact that our big chunky cultures, western culture, Islamic culture, Chinese culture, however you want to divide it up, seven civilizations if you’re a Huntington fan, those things are … Most of them sufficiently robust that they don’t die out at anything like a reasonable rate to have much selection pressure.

Robin: You’re right to think that we have these nested structure of culture, that complicates our analysis here a lot. I talk a lot in the paper about firm culture, corporate cultures, and we have a lot of selection there that as firms go out of business a lot and their cultures do change a lot and typically for the worst, but selection saves us. And even maybe at the level of cities perhaps, you could think city cultures, others enough, different cities and cities do sometimes fade and others grow and we have some degree of selection among cities. But when you get up to these larger scale cultures then there aren’t very many of them and they don’t go down very often. That is we don’t have much war and they’re rich. And so yes, there’s weak selection pressures and there’s just so few that we’re not going to see much discipline of them if they go off the rails.

Jim: And then you add to that the concept which we know from biological evolution is … And that’s the idea of evolutionary drift or cultural drift. Let’s talk about that a little bit.

Robin: Things change and either they change according to a program or they change because selection declares winners or they just change for some other reason. All the other reasons we’re just going to call drift. We’re animals and plants around us. We all change in terms of time of day and time of year. And we have many pre-programmed ways that we will change according to circumstances. We might change according to density, say humans might have a way that we feel differently when we’re in a dense situation, we act differently then. We might even have ways we react to wealth, being rich versus poor. Plausibly animals and plants and humans also, just have a lot of ways that we change according to a pre-selected program, that is selection long ago approved of some program and said … Basically a program was generated and then it won out in competition over other programs. And then we have these programs about how we change. That’s one of the main reasons we’re not that anxious every time we change something. We tend to presume, “Well, this must be one of my programs.”
That’s got to be one of the hypothesis to consider about cultural change. Oh. Well, maybe we have some cultural change programs we’re executing here that we evolved a long time ago and so maybe that’s not so bad. But if it’s not a program and it’s not selection, some cultures winning out because they just work out better, what’s left over? I’ll call it drift, it’s just some process of change that we have no particular reason to think is adaptive. We might like it emotionally, it might feel good, but standing outside our culture and asking, “Is this going to make our culture more or less adaptive?”
We got to presume less.

Jim: Yeah. A drift without selection, like my home academic field to the degree I have one, is evolutionary computation. And if you had mutation without selection, you tend to get shit pretty quickly.

Robin: Say our DNA processes for having children, DNA can mutate and change and we have lots of elaborate processes to check and correct those changes. And then of course even in computer programs, computer chips have ways they just make mistakes but we have error correction to make sure that the computation isn’t affected by those changes. The fact that you might have a little noise in the system isn’t usually that big a problem if you do error correction. And you could think of in some sense the conservative cultural instinct as that thing of saying, “Beware of changes, let’s make sure we evaluate them a lot before we approve them.”
And even most organizations, corporations etc, they don’t approve new products and new production processes without some checks and tests before you let them go forward. And then you constantly test your machinery and your employees to see if they’re on the rails and still working out. It’s variation that isn’t checked that’s the thing you should worry about. And if you just look at your and my lives and how culture has changed over lives, we’re just seeing enormous change, a massive change. And so we have to wonder, “Well, is that part of a plan? Is there an error correction going on there? What the hell? Because if this isn’t being controlled or managed, we’re in deep shit.”

Jim: Could be, we don’t know. We have no reason to have confidence in the ensemble of changes that have occurred.

Robin: For any one of them we don’t have much confidence either way, but the accumulation of a thousand of them, I’m going to guess overall that’s bad.

Jim: Let’s now go into your first little case study or example. And this is one I actually have a fair bit of experience back in the old days when I was a dude building companies, running companies and even did two turnarounds. This is it where you talk about the difficulty of change. We can get into that in some detail if you’d like. How did you think about the idea of corporate culture as a good found experiment for your thinking here?

Robin: Well, whenever I think about anything that’s involving big social things, I realize I should try to find small analogs. For example, I got my PhD in formal political theory years ago, and almost all the stuff people do in that literature is about national politics or at most, state or city politics. But I realized years later, “Oh, there’s lots of local politics. And it’s much easier to study and understand, so you should just first study local politics. Once you’ve got your handle on that, then you can go back and think about how national politics might be a bit different. But if you go straight to national politics, it’s hopeless because it’s just so hard to get good data and understand.”
Similarly on culture, as soon as I realized recently, “Oh, I need to understand culture better. Well, let’s find small cultures. What do we know about them?”
And so I tried to dive into the literature on corporate cultures. And I already knew that we knew a lot about the stats of corporations and how long they last, what fraction of them die how fast, and where most innovation comes from. It’s a key fact that most innovation in industry is not within a company getting better, it’s bad companies being replaced by good ones. That’s a key fact about industry.

Jim: And then another one that you didn’t mention, and this is actually huge, is big companies acquiring little companies. The whole pharma industry is basically based on that today. They have totally lost the capacity to do drug invention at the big pharma companies. And so now they just have a pharm team of little companies out there and those who …

Robin: That lets the zombie live a little longer really.

Jim: Exactly, yeah. And Google same way, Google hasn’t actually invented a new product in 20 years. And it’s probably one of the reasons they’re falling behind in the AI race, is they don’t have the DNA for it anymore.

Robin: You’re right, that would’ve been a nice thing to mention. But the conclusion I’m suggesting from this, and I think you’ll agree, is that corporate cultures just have internal dynamics by which they change, not managed by the leaders or induced by tech or things like that. They may prod them but they just change. And they just change relatively rapidly. Corporate cultures just go different quickly. And sometime that’s good and usually it’s not.

Jim: It’s almost certainly not. And the reason is, at least I would argue having been inside the belly of the beast for 25 years, is agency risk.

Robin: But that was there at the beginning. The question is, why is it worse later than it was at the beginning?

Jim: Well, it’s a force like entropy that is working to degrade whatever you built, whatever the original founding team built, agency risk is at work to degrade whatever you have built.

Robin: Then we have to think the usual … Initial thing was a rare achievement. Founding cultures are somehow especially good.

Jim: Well, no, because to your point about selection, most founding companies go tits up within five years.

Robin: Companies founded that are still around 10 years later, those …

Jim: A huge selection bias for having done something right or just been exceedingly lucky, both are part of the equation just as they are in biological evolution.

Robin: Exactly.

Jim: You have a relatively fit culture, let’s say 10 years in, and then you have the equivalent of entropy, which is agency risk and close relatives of agency risk, which are working to corrode the culture at all times.

Robin: But let’s notice two key facts. One is firm cultures are roughly closer to the scale of ancient human cultures. That is ancient human societies would have a culture maybe of a scale of a thousand or a few thousand people or even a hundred, so we evolved a lot of mechanisms for tracking and managing and dealing with those size cultures. And firm cultures are in the ballpark of the size of the cultures we should have a lot of skills with. Humans should have a lot of skills dealing with firm size cultures.

Jim: Ah. But these small micro civilizations, particularly the smallest ones, the earlier Dunbar number level ones, they did not survive very long. They split and fusioned and got wiped out and the men were killed and the women were abducted.

Robin: Sure, sure. It might not be great but at least something we have some evolved skills regarding. And in addition, managers of firms have pretty strong incentives and powers to try to manage culture well. That is they have a lot of money at stake, if they can fix it they can make huge amounts of money. They can fire pretty much anybody. They can command people to do things. They have enormous power and incentive to improve and at least prevent the decay of their firm’s cultures.

Jim: Indeed. And it is hard. I can tell you, having built companies and then sold them and then watched them gradually decay as they were inside the belly of the beast, and then twice brought in by big companies to be Mr. Turnaround, that was extraordinarily interesting. And you can do it but you got to break a lot of eggs and …

Robin: And it usually doesn’t work.

Jim: I think the statistics on it, maybe it works about … What, a third of the time maybe, something like that.

Robin: They might declare success a third of the time. Now, if you went and looked at it, you might not be so sure but two thirds of the time they won’t even declare success. They’re just going to admit it was a failure.

Jim: Yeah. Either I’m lucky or good because I was successful both times I did it, though after I was gone … Regression to the mean.

Robin: But one third success in two times is a one ninth chance. That’s not terribly unlikely.

Jim: Exactly.

Robin: It’s what I heard about generals, a good general wins three battles.

Jim: They asked a bunch of military historians, “What’s the definition of a good general? One who wins five battles in a row?”
How many generals would you say are excellent in history? About three in a hundred. You do the math and you’re right there, it’s a coin flip every fucking time.

Robin: Exactly. All right. We’re going to want to draw lessons from corporate culture for our larger cultures, and we should pause and say, “Yes, it is different.”
We shouldn’t expect everything that’s true about corporate cultures to also be true about larger macro cultures but it’s just harder to understand macro cultures. We have less data on them, and it’s harder to figure them out. And there should be some similarity but notice the differences, they’re on a larger scale such that our evolved abilities won’t necessarily be as appropriate for them. They’re just more of a strange thing for us to deal with, and the leaders of them have much weaker incentives and powers to manage them.

Jim: That is true. Let me think a little bit about corporate culture and why other reasons? Because a good leader, and if they have good subordinates and particularly if you have a very powerful outplacement and hiring methods … That’s what I did. First thing I did is bring in people I knew who really knew how to do recruiting and ejection. Believe it or not, I always had a very strong interest in HR before it became a tool for political manipulation.

Robin: Well, you should have a stronger interest now.

Jim: Yeah. And now I just go in there with a gun, just start shooting people. Rhetorically, rhetorically, please. Do not report me to the FBI or something. My analysis and how to do turnaround, in both cases both of them were in quite fast growing companies that were in good financial condition but were decaying rapidly due to wrong people, bad culture. And so I quickly determined that changing culture is significantly about change …

Jim: … And that changing culture is significantly about changing personnel. In one case, I literally got rid of everybody, out of 110 people initially, 10 survived a year. And the second case, it was growing so fast we needed everybody, but we brought in twice as many people as we had by the end of a year. So there I could just do the inbound filtering and partially change the culture that way.

Robin: So this is not just that some people are just bad people, it’s also just that when there’s a bunch of people who have a culture, they’re reluctant to change it. But if you bring in a bunch of new people, it’s much more plastic, they’re much more amenable to being introduced to a new culture.

Jim: Well, I have to add an interesting point, which somewhat surprised me. Even in the case where I got rid of 100 out of 110, at the end of… In this case I think it was three years, we had 400 people. So lots of new people coming in, a few of the echoes of the bad old culture somehow managed to propagate into the new thing. And of course [inaudible 00:25:02] I thought about that in retrospect, I realized because I couldn’t have gotten rid of all 100 people at the same time. So as you brought new people… So the first 10 that came in are culurated by the 100 that were there before, or the 110 that were there before. And so even when I was gone and left, I said, “You Know? We did a 75, 80% good job of cleaning shit up. But here are these two or three echoes of badness that somehow got propagated into the new regime.”

Robin: If we then consider more macro cultures, we need to make clear that how the world has changed to have much fewer of them. So we have in the US 100,000 firms with more than 100 employees, and we used to have hundreds of thousands of cultures around the world. What happened? And the first thing that happened is the nation state. So it used to be empires would control a geographic area and it would tax them and demand soldiers from them, but it wouldn’t mess that much with their local cultures, it didn’t care much about that. But in the last few centuries, there was the rise of the nation state whereby say, famously described in the book by Peasants into Frenchmen about France, that nations merged these local cultures into a national economy, a national culture, schooling, trade, taxes, movement of mobility of labor. They worked hard and succeeded at creating nations which saw themselves as nations and had national level cultures by substantially part repressing these local cultures.
And the repression was kind of fierce. That is when you think about the West going out and messing with indigenous cultures elsewhere in the world, they weren’t any kinder at home to their local indigenous cultures in smashing them into a national culture, that they were fair about that, honestly, they treated people around the world pretty much like they treated people at home with respect to smashing local cultures.

Jim: So that gives us, say, today 200 nation states in the early modern nation state after Westphalia, it was actually a lot more than that. It was like 1,000, something like that. So are we talking about today’s sort of monoculture at the level of 1,000, or are we talking at that higher level of civilizational cultures?

Robin: Right. So then in the last century, we have definitely seen, but we can discuss the details because people may be skeptical a merging into a global culture, especially among elites. So for example, in Covid, it was dramatic that as soon as the disease appeared, the usual health epidemiologists experts had their usual advice about what to do. And then elites around the world got together and talked about what to do, and then within a month or two, they had a whole different plan of what to do. And then the entire world did that, with very few exceptions. And that shows you that we have this elite world culture who agrees on many things. Another example is the only country in the world that allows organ sales of any sort is Iran, and bioethicists are all the time having meetings where how are we going to get Iran to stop violating our sacred moral norms about organs?
And so regulation worldwide is really quite convergent, that we don’t remotely have the degree of experimentation you might think if we had 150 independent nations with independent draws for regulation, we could have enormous innovation learning from that. But we don’t have that much variety because most regulators are elites who got trained at the same elite colleges that everybody else in the world got trained in. They go to the same sort of meetings, they vacation in the same places, and they run regulation. So my last anecdote, when I meet elites around the world, they tell me two things. So say I meet elites in Brazil, they will tell me, “Brazilians have some unique features and distinctive personality, distinctive cultures that the world should value, the world should really like and want to use the things we Brazilians have.”
And they’ll also tell you they themselves personally have no unique features. They will fit in just fine in any global organization or conference or anything else you want to do with them. There’s no obstacle whatsoever to using them. You don’t have to think about how they’re different, they’re not different. They are personally just a generic world elite.

Jim: I have certainly seen that in my own interactions with people from around the world. The top 100th of 1% or so are quite similar. Though, if we look at the sort of the groupings level, say let’s compare Islam versus the West, certainly we have lots of very different values around things like gender roles or sex roles or whatever the terminology de jour happens to be. The place of religion and state. There’s a lot of big things that there are the Huntington-esque handful, handful plus levels of civilization that are pretty significant. And certainly China has a radically unique socio-political economic operating system that does things quite differently in many domains than any of the other operating systems.

Robin: So the key word is “many” as opposed to “most.” So for example, China, many people I knew for a long time said, “Sure, the west won’t do genetic engineering, but China thinks differently about these things. They’re not Christian and they don’t have the same hangups. And so they will see the advantages of doing aggressive genetic engineering to give high IQ kids and beat the world at having quality workers.” But they didn’t.

Jim: Well, I don’t know about that. What I hear is that there is such research going on in China.

Robin: But not widespread application. They could have gone wild with application a long time ago and they’re still allowing some research.

Jim: And they did censor the one dude who actually went ahead and actually did it.

Robin: Tried to do something.

Jim: Yeah, Yeah. So they’re well ahead of us, which is worth worrying about, but you are right that they, so far at least, have not been willing to violate the worldwide norms. So essentially we have worldwide norms and then we have cultural sphere norms, let’s say, China versus the West versus Islam versus orthodoxy, if you want to use Huntington. And then you do have the nation state differences as well. Some of them are dumb. Like if you go to a meeting in Brazil, you better not assume it’s going to start on time. If you go to a meeting in Japan, you better fucking not be late. So there are differences that do have differences in efficacy throughout the stack.

Robin: Sure, and if you go all the way to the other extreme, say we have enormous variety in musical genres or TV shows or those sorts [inaudible 00:32:09] fandoms. So the world has in some sense far more variety perhaps about TV shows or novels or music perhaps than it once did. But people who are into some particular genre of music don’t tend to have that many other cultural features they share with the people who are into that particular kind of music, on most dimensions of their life they defer to some other aspect of culture in their lives. So for each kind of culture, we can ask, “Well, how many aspects of your life does that influence? And how important are they fundamentally for civilization?” And what we want is more variety and selection in the kinds of aspects of culture that fundamentally matter for civilization, such that if they go off the rails we’re screwed.

Jim: And particularly so then in the context of stack, we just drew the picture of, the risk is highest at the top stack. If everybody’s doing X and X is wrong, that’s really bad.

Robin: Well, especially if X is really fundamental, like how many years of schooling should you have? Or should you get married young in life or when you formed yourself? Or-

Jim: Yeah, should you send everybody to four-year college that you can afford to do so for, for instance is another one.

Robin: For example. So there’s a whole bunch of fundamental cultural choices that really matter in terms of how lives go and civilization goes. And those are the things that we tend to have more convergence on worldwide. We allow more kinds of food or clothes or ways to decorate your house. People are… They’re proud of themselves for being into that and liking that kind of variety. But when you get to gender roles, say… That’s, I think, the thing in which people are the most adamant, that there must not be variation in gender role norms. And if Islam’s community has different gender role norms, the rest of the world is pretty adamant that must stop soon. And they really are exerting quite strong pressures to make that happen.

Jim: Though again, as we talked about earlier, within the United States it’s still pretty close. And now if anything, the trads may be making a little bit of a comeback here. And I certainly would say that peak woke probably occurred in 2021 and I see a certain diminution in it. So the battle isn’t yet over here in the West.

Robin: But I would take a key measure of how much cultural variety and selection is enough and how much we have infertility.

Jim: That’s a good one we’ve talked about before, let’s go down that one.

Robin: Right. So in principle, the world could have enormous different fertility habits if they had different attitudes toward marriage and careers and gender roles and urban versus rural and religion.

Jim: And they did in 1960, the differences were huge.

Robin: Much larger than today, absolutely. But still, if we look at fertility worldwide, it’s low and been falling and there is substantial variation that could give you some hope. But the correlation is striking and it suggests there is a lot of shared culture in the world. So for example, a test case is the Mormons, you certainly would have to agree that in 1900, Mormons were quite a distinctive culture in the United States. And they had quite distinctive cult practices with respect to families and fertility and marriage and community. And part of that was having distinctive fertility, because they had such a distinctive culture, they could have quite a different fertility. And then in the 20th century, the Mormon Church, which is quite centralized, made a conscious decision to integrate Mormons more into the rest of the country. And they succeeded at that, more like a firm trying to make a cultural reform.
And now Mormon’s fertility is like 20 years behind everybody else and falling at the same rate. So they have in some sense successfully become integrated enough into society that the rest of us aren’t too pissed at them, most people don’t complain much about the Mormons. There’s not much hostility against them anymore, there used to be quite a lot. And they mix with us pretty smoothly, and their fertility is approaching ours. That’s not sufficient cultural difference to support different fertility. And a key thing I think to focus your attention here is not just whether cultures are different, but how insular they are. It’s because insularity is the thing that allows differences to maintain. So part of the reason the world shares so many fertility trends is the world mixes so much in terms of sharing television and movies and trade and international respect, and those things make the world converge more in culture. And that’s reflected, I think, in the convergent fertility. It’s a nice clear test of how much cultural convergence we have. It’s not total, but it’s quite a lot.

Jim: Yes, that is a good one because it obviously has profound impacts for the good and bad as we go from a exponentially growing population, which is at least the exponent has changed a lot over the last 450 years or so, to one where it actually goes negative. And so if we’re sort of doing this by accident, it would be kind of a strange thing to do.

Robin: You know we had this previous podcast on fertility, so we talked that a lot more there. And when we did that, I was just mainly focused on fertility as a problem, but it is a huge problem and thinking about what we could do about it. And then the shock to me in the last few months is to realize, “Oh, our fertility problem is actually a sign or symptom of a deeper problem that looks harder to fix.” That’s cultural drift. So now I’m much less optimistic and I wasn’t that optimistic then.

Jim: Okay before we go further into the cultural drift and the spiral down, then eventually what we might do about it, let’s talk a little bit about two stories that are told by the powers that be typically, and why these changes are likely for the better.

Robin: Right, now first I’ll just say there are people who study cultural evolution, and they don’t buy the story that cultural changes are all part of a plan or… So, the stories we’re about to hear are the stories of our cultural elites. So let’s just pause and talk about there’s two different kinds of conversations about culture in the world. One kind of conversation about culture is among say, academics who study the nature of culture itself and how it changes and what causes it. But there’s a whole nother conversation about culture, such as in the culture section of the newspaper. And that use of culture is basically people who are in the game of pushing a particular culture in a particular direction. And they do that often through how they review art and celebrate political changes and personal styles.
And we celebrate those people enormously. They are, in some sense, the most celebrated intellectuals in our world, are the people who are allowed to pontificate on and that we admire pontificating on culture by which they don’t mean to analyze how culture works. They mean our culture should move in this direction as opposed to that direction, they want to criticize and dump on, “Those parts of our culture are terrible and we should censor them, and these parts are great.” And so that’s the people fighting to change culture. But here we’re going to step back and talk about the larger picture.

Jim: And so your two stories.

Robin: The stories these people tell, they are stories about why the things they’re pushing when they win were good. How is it that this process that people fight over culture and then some of them win and then it changes, why we should all embrace that? So two simple stories they can make. One is the executing some existing conditional strategy. Just like, for example, when we change our behavior day or night, winter or summer, we’re executing long evolve strategies.

Jim: That’s what you call the context dependent story.

Robin: Exactly. And so they could claim that, “Oh, now that the world is richer, or now that we have complicated technologies, surely we would want to do the following things.” And they’re trying to explain the changes they want as consequences of an appropriate change in context.

Jim: Now, let me give you an example of one that happened in both of our lifetimes that maybe does fit this model, the acceptance of homosexuality. When I was a kid growing up in a working class neighborhood, homosexuality was the worst thing. There was nobody out at all, called somebody a queer, that was fighting words worse than using the N word. And God knows where that idea came from. I guess it came from religion originally, but it was extremely strong. But then once people started coming out in the eighties and you started… Or late seventies, in my case, I happened to have the good fortune to work for a publishing company in the Bay Area where about 20% of the staff was gay, and at least out at work, if not to their mothers yet. And so you started to meet some gay people and you realize, “Wait a minute, they’re perfectly okay. And oh, by the way, it’s really obvious that they’re gay.”
This is certainly, at least for a large percentage of them, a pretty damn innate thing. So once we started to realize… And then more scientific work was done to show that this innate hypothesis, “They weren’t just sinners out to disrespect Yahweh.” They were pretty innate, and despite that, they were pretty nice people. And very rapidly in historical terms, the immense hatred of homosexuals evaporated in a context dependency of new knowledge, essentially, I would say.

Robin: Now there are places like Russia where that isn’t quite as true.

Jim: Yeah, it’s certainly not true in the Islamic world either.

Robin: So this is something that’s still in play at the world scale, but certainly among elites in the world, this is no longer an issue. World elites are quite consistent on-

Jim: By my argument though, that is an example of context dependency. Now that we learn more and know more, then we can make the change.

Robin: Well, so there’s two theories I had. One was context, and the other is learning. It sounds like you’re attributing this more to the learning story, which is fine. But let’s just make sure we’re clear on the distinction. So one distinction would be to say the modern world, for example, we have medicine to handle disease, so we don’t need to be as wary of contact with strangers or something. You might say, because in the past, contact with strangers might give you diseases, and it made sense for people to be wary of strangers because of how we had poor technology for handling disease. Now that we have great technology for handling disease, it makes less sense to be wary of having contact with strangers. That would be a context-dependent story [inaudible 00:43:24] saying, “Well, we’re just making a reasonable change to a context.”

Jim: Oh, another one that would fit that example would be sexual promiscuity and birth control.

Robin: Right, you might say in the past we had to repress sexual promiscuity because it would lead to babies that were unwanted. Now with birth control, we don’t have to repress promiscuity so much because it doesn’t lead to the babies that are problematic. So those are context-dependent stories. The other kind of story is a learning story. It says basically, we think of our behavior as having layers of goals and sub-goals. We have deep goals, which shouldn’t change very much, but we have sub-goals that should change more, not only with context, but also as we figure things out. That is, we might not have realized that there’s different ways to achieve our deep goals than we had noticed, and therefore… Or ways in which our sub-goals were incoherent or inconsistent with each other or with deeper goals. And so then we might reasonably adjust our sub-goals, not because the world changed, but because we just learned more about what would really accomplish our deeper goals. So that sounds like more of your story about homosexuality.

Jim: Yeah, I’ll buy that.

Robin: Okay, so then you might say, “Nobody really ever noticed that there wouldn’t be much harm if we allowed lots of homosexuality.” We just discovered this fact recently, and now because we’ve discovered this fact, we behave differently. Now, it seems to me history has had societies that we’re pretty open to homosexuality. So the idea that we never knew anything about what would happen if we had a society that was open to homosexuality, that isn’t very plausible. I don’t think we learned something fundamental there. You could think that we needed those rules back then for some context that has changed, then it would be more of a context-dependent story. But you might’ve thought, “Oh, we just never bothered to notice that our disapproval of homosexuality, say, came from some presumption or assumption we had made that we had never questioned.” And then once we questioned it, we go, “Oh, well, I guess that was a reasoning mistake, and now we should change our mind.”
Now, that’s a way many philosophers in particular like to frame moral progress, because they like to take a center role in the world of morality and think that their philosophical arguments about actions are driving world behavior in terms of what people think of as moral. They also say that about slavery, for example. That in the past, people had just never thought that slavery might be immoral, but then philosophers made arguments to say, “Oh, hey, have you thought about how mean you’re being to treat someone as a slave?” “Oh, gee, I’d never thought of that. I guess now I’ve learned that I don’t want to be a slave owner.” That’s a moral progress story based on some idea that there was a new argument introduced that people hadn’t noticed, and now with the new argument they were going to change their mind about the consequences.
There are many things to respond here. One of them is I just typically… If you look for the specific argument that say, “Okay, what’s the new thing we actually did figure out, where’s the detail?” It’s really hard to find. It’s really hard to find any particular thing that people didn’t already know for a long time, that is a problem with the argument. But another issue is that if you think of our previous world as having been selected, as having survived selection pressures, the selection pressures were only ever going to be on the sub-goals that were closest to behavior.

Jim: I will say I was slightly confused by this part of the discussion. Let’s clarify it a little bit. I think I see what you’re saying, but let’s see if you can say it as clearly as possible.

Robin: So we have a hierarchy of goals and sub-goals. We have actions that are basically close to the highest level sub-goals. I have a goal of visiting my relatives this weekend, and then I have to decide which relative to visit, and then I have to decide when I’m going to leave and when I’m going to get there. And then I have decide if I’m going to take a plane or I’m going to drive. And when I’m deciding to drive, I have to take which freeway, and now I’m on the freeway and I have to decide, should I stop for lunch now or should I keep going?

Jim: These are the surface things.

Robin: Right, we’re getting more and more to the surface things next to an action because at some point I get off the freeway at this particular exit and I stop at that restaurant. Fundamentally, at the deep level, there might be how many children you want, and then there might be a surface level of, “Do I get a master’s degree? Do I marry now versus later? Do I marry John? Do we hold the wedding in June?” You’re getting closer and closer to sub-goals that are closer to [inaudible 00:48:04]-

Robin: You’re getting closer and closer to subgoals that are closer to action, but down deep would be supposedly these values we have about how many children do I want? What sort of person do I want to be like? Do I want to live near my family? Things like that.

Jim: But then your argument is that selection only works on the top of that, the most superficial part of that stack.

Robin: Right. Selection is only about actions. Actions are only selected, not your deep reasoning about the actions.

Jim: Well, let’s think about that. If I decide to get married and then I do get married and I do have kids, then that decision to get married at selective consequences.

Robin: Right. Your selecting on the deeper goals too, but only via the subgoal interpretation. That is you had a certain interpretation of which subgoal would achieve a deeper goal and then you took an action based on that and that action will select four subgoals and deeper goals. But to the extent there’s a mismatch between your deeper goal and the subgoal, we have to say, “Well, their selection is more directly on the subgoal.”

Jim: Yeah. The fact that I actually had sex with my wife during her fertile period was actually what did it not the fact that I decided when I was 23 that I’d like to get married and have kids someday. Okay, that makes sense. Okay, good. That right there clarified it.

Robin: So if the moral progress story is, well, I had this habit of who I had sex with, and then I realized later, “Oh, that’s not so consistent with my deeper goals. I want to have a new plan about who to have sex with based on my deeper goals.” The fact that you exist as part of a culture that did something is only evidence about the adaptability of the subgoals you were following, not about the deeper goals. If you’re going to change your subgoals in response to deeper goals, that wasn’t selected for before.

Jim: Okay, that makes sense.

Robin: You’re now drifting from the point of view of evolution. You’re drifting away from the thing that it had selected for.

Jim: Though to some degree, if your deeper goals are anchors or biases than they are constraining the cone of the drift to some degree.

Robin: They are constraining it, but the more you question and make that constraint flexible, the more you detach those two things.

Jim: The more drift there will be.

Robin: Right, exactly.

Jim: It’s a cone with a variable top.

Robin: Right. So that’s what you’re doing when you’re going back and reconsidering the connection between your deeper goals and your subgoals. You’re weakening that connection. You’re making it more flexible. You’re allowing things to go more different places.

Jim: This is where we see if we pay off or don’t. All right, so we now have that nice, very good, much better description of that process. How do you reconcile that or use that to reject the concept of context dependent or learning based as drivers of cultural evolution?

Robin: Let’s take the homosexuality case for example. If we say we’re in a world where people were repressing homosexuality and then we thought previously that that was an expression of our deeper goals, and then we reconsider that connection and we say, “Oh, I guess homosexuality isn’t so at odds with our deeper goals, let’s allow more homosexuality.” You have to realize that that new practice wasn’t licensed by evolutionary selection. You’re moving into a new practice territory. It may work out and it may not, but you can’t trust it because it used to work because you weren’t doing this before.

Jim: Okay, that’s good. Yeah. So that any change at that level because it is new clearly could not have been driven by selection. It’s based by cognition or if we called it learning, we’d say we have some reason to believe it’s true, but selection isn’t one of them. If it’s context-dependent, then I suppose we could say it’s some combination of our instinct and cognition.

Robin: Let’s make a different comparison. Let’s say we evolved a previous belief in not dying and then we invent nukes and we’ve never had nukes before, so we have no evolutionary experience with how to treat nukes, but we reason from our not dying goal that we shouldn’t explode nukes. Now that might work out okay because in fact this not dying goal was a pretty robust goal and so we aren’t now challenging some previous subgoal you see, we’re just adding a new subgoal in a new context where we had none before. So evolution didn’t approve this new subgoal as it never had any direct experience with it, but we were generalizing this new subgoal from our deeper things, which is a generalization of our previous subgoals. So you might think that can work out better. Basically abstracting from previous subgoals to a more general goal and then applying it to a new case could go on average go well.

Jim: Let’s take a look at the acceptance of homosexuality. One could argue, and it has been argued, and I think I agree with it, is that it is a reasonable extension of all men are created equal and down by the creator, blah, blah, blah, yada yada, and call it universal liberal humanism as sort of a base value of the enlightenment. And once you get rid of other distractions like Leviticus, then it becomes clear that full rights for homosexuals is congruent with our deeper values and is therefore at least probably a good thing.

Robin: Let me just point, I made this distinction of inside culture talk or outside culture talk and our celebrated culture experts, like the people who write in the culture section of the newspaper, they are mainly focused on this insider talk of pushing and arguing for changes. And this speech you just made is a classic insider culture talk speech. From within a culture, you’re saying these are our fundamental values and therefore we should do the following because it’s most coherent with our fundamental values. And that’s often quite a persuasive kind of talk inside a culture. The point is then to stand outside cultures and ask what happens when this talk happens over and over again? Where does that go?

Jim: I think your point then is that from outside of culture, you cannot rely on selection as a quality control at the time these decisions are made because they weren’t selected for because to your point that these are surface level changes that couldn’t have been selected for before because they didn’t exist. But is it wrong to use our deeper values to make such changes?

Robin: The higher level thing might say, “How could we change our cultural practices in essence to do better?” But first of all, we have to have a clearer view of what the problem is that we may be trying to solve. This is moving into problem solving mode. If you ask, “Isn’t it fine to do what we’re doing?” We have to have a diagnosis of what is the problem if there is any with what we’re doing, and then think specifically about different things we could do instead and ask would they be better? Obviously if you don’t have a concrete alternative about what to do instead, you might as well do what you’re doing.

Jim: I’ll throw out at least one hypothesis on a sign that we’re probably not doing it optimally or even right, which is historically we’ve had a very low rate of, not very low, but a low rate of cultural change. You look at the change over the Roman Empire, it was significant, but way slower than ours. There may well be a rate of cultural change, which we as humans are not a good fit for.

Robin: Might be.

Jim: Currently, there is no real mechanism to steer the rate of cultural change to-

Robin: Absolutely.

Jim: The maximum rate that humans can tolerate successfully.

Robin: Let’s just quickly summarize the problem because I think we’re there, we don’t need to build any more ground for it, and then start talking about these various kinds of solutions. So the fundamental problem is that we used to have hundreds of thousands of cultures. They might’ve gone off the rail quite often, but they were poor and there were pandemics and there were invasions, and they didn’t have to go very far from wherever they were to be selected against. And selection ensured overall quality of culture, just like selection ensures the quality of firms today. But in the last few centuries, we first made the nation states repressing down to a few hundred cultures, and then we have been creating this global culture, which is still not dominating everything, but more and more influential in the world. So we have far less variety of culture and they’re much farther away from the edge of survival.
So that means selection is just really weak at the moment. And so that’ll go fine for a while because we’re far from the edge of survival. We can survive through cultural drift, but we got to expect culture is drifting because we see these rapid rates have change and we have to expect random places in the space of culture aren’t so good as with corporate culture. So we have to think that over the next few centuries, if not sooner, culture will just drift to many bad places and there’s nothing to stop it until we revert to sufficient poverty or cultural fragmentation or war such that there’ll be substantial selection again. That’s the fundamental problem. Either we just accept that that’s the future or we think about what we could do instead. That’s the key choice. So I phrase it as turn the ship of world culture or get on some lifeboats.

Jim: Okay, so that was well stated as the Robin Hanson position on why we need to do something. Well, what are the things that we can do?

Robin: You could join the opposition. So there are some very small subcultures today which have defined world culture by being very insular, and they also happen to be typically very small and fragmented and fundamental religious, and they have been able to maintain high fertility and high retention rates. So like the Amish or [inaudible 00:58:18] or Mennonites, these groups are not declining because they have pretty strong internal cultural selection and they represent cultural selection in the sense that they’re just variety of the sort that hardly exists anywhere else. They embody enormous important variety and if nothing else, they will replace our dominant world civilization. And if you want to accept that we can’t do anything, you might figure out how to switch and join them.

Jim: That’s interesting. And I literally like that part of your paper. Something I’d never seen before was you had a pointer to the Rodney Stark book that argues that differential reproduction was a bigger piece than we thought in how Christianity prevailed over Rome. Never heard that hypothesis before.

Robin: So the scenario of the Amish replacing us is precedent in the sense that this is what happens with Christians in the Roman Empire.

Jim: Yep. I never heard that story before and I ordered the book and if I liked the book, I’m going to see if the guy’s still alive and if he is, see if he can come on the podcast.

Robin: He’s a famous sociologist. He’s good. So the key idea is that the Christians started a thousand people or something in a hundred A.D. and they basically doubled every 20 years for three centuries as the Roman Empire declined in population not declining nearly as fast as they grew. And that was enough so that after three centuries, they came to dominate the Roman Empire.

Jim: Yeah, 15 to the 15th.

Robin: And we don’t know exactly which of the several processes contributed how much to their growth. Typically, in the ancient world, cities were bad places to grow.

Jim: Until 1900, cities were net killers of people.

Robin: Exactly. But Christians were mainly in cities, and yet they doubled every 20 years. So they dramatically defied the odds of cities. They had things like Christian women would marry a non-Christian man and insist the children be raised Christian. So that’s a way to, in some sense, double the population every generation, or at least on the women’s side. I guess men could do the same, perhaps insist that the children be raised Christian if they married a non-Christian. That’s one thing they did. Another thing they did was when there were pandemics instead of fleeing to the countryside, they stuck around and took care of people suffering the personal risk of the pandemic, but earning the gratitude of people who might have otherwise died. And they gained many converts that way, and that’s another way they grew over time. And they also were very anti-infanticide, which the Roman culture was rather pro-infanticide.
It did a lot of infanticide. Christians were very adamant against it, so they would rescue and save those who were left out to exposure to die, and that also grew their numbers. So not all of these methods are available to people today. And then they didn’t have to be quite as insular because the world was just more naturally insular then, although they were in cities. And so being insular in a city is a bigger challenge than being insular. But they didn’t have social media and TV and things like that to worry about losing their kids to the mass culture.

Jim: That’s interesting. I just did the numbers while you were chatting. And two to the 15th equals 30,000 times an initial population of a thousand equals 30 million, which is right in the range of the population of the Roman Empire at the peak.

Robin: Right. So you can see it works, the numbers work. And the Amish have doubled every 20 years since 1905. And if they double for another two centuries, that’s a factor of a thousand going from 400,000 to 400 million. So the numbers work.

Jim: I’ve also seen the numbers that in 350 years, the ultra-Orthodox population of Israel will be 25% of the world’s population.

Robin: There’s obviously risks here, but still, if you’re going to bet on anyone in the world, I would bet on these folks compared to everybody else, because they’re at least on a track to succeed. So one solution is to get on the lifeboats. These are the lifeboats basically.

Jim: And what else we got?

Robin: What else we got? So the first simple solution is to say that conservatives have had a point. In a lot of cultural disputes over those centuries, you’ve often had reformers who are trying to push a change and people resisting the change, and they’re often called conservatives because they’re saying, “This looks a little iffy, it’s not well-proven. You should need to go slower here. This doesn’t look good to us. Stop the change.”

Jim: The classic formulation of that is Chesterton’s Fence. Right?

Robin: Well, that’s a rationale for why to stop the change.

Jim: Yeah, yeah. Here’s an example of something that you think it’s changeable, but well, maybe you shouldn’t, right?

Robin: Maybe right. So we got a grant that they’ve had a point, if our diagnosis is rampant cultural drift, it is saying we’re being too free with change.

Jim: And also it supports the rut argument that there may be a cognitive rate of change, which we just don’t deal well with.

Robin: Right. So that would be a compromise. Let’s limit change to a certain rate at which we check things. For example, we require a small scale tests of them and we get data on them, and then we consider them for larger societies. That would be a moderate conservative position. Maybe the more extreme conservative position would be to say, “Let’s not only stop change, let’s go back to something we knew worked.” And pick 1700 England or something and say, “Let’s do that culture.”

Jim: Where we had 50% of the kids dying by the time they were five.

Robin: Well, we’re not going to revive the technology though. We’re trying to only go back to their values. But there’s many ways in which it might be hard to figure out what those were exactly to separate those two.

Jim: To the context question, you can’t, right? Because if there is at least something to the idea of the contextual reaction of behavior.

Robin: Right. Well, then you’d be giving up on that. You’d be saying, “No, well…” The fact that 1700 England seemed to work is enough. Yes, it might be that.

Jim: No antibiotics, no modern dentistry, no ordering stuff at Whole Foods.

Robin: Obviously you can see the problems with this approach, right?

Jim: Yes, exactly.

Robin: But it is an approach and it not only is an approach that some voices had a voice for it for a long time. And so there’s clearly a cultural reservoir of sympathy for this.

Jim: And it’s happened in China occasionally during periods where very conservative dynasties came in and reasserted strong Confucianism after periods of chaos or more free love, et cetera. So there is examples of it. So it is a path that could happen.

Robin: It should go on the list. So we got two things on the list, get on the lifeboats and join the Amish or just stop change and revert back and only be very conservative about the change you was allowing. The third option here is totalitarian. That is you try to go like these firms with somebody managing the culture, but they have to do better than the firm managers do. You say, “Well, we’re going to have a world government and agency in charge of culture, and they get to decide which culture changes happen, and they’ll do lots of big studies and of course, just like government agencies everywhere, we’ll do a careful stellar job of initiating and managing the program of culture.”

Jim: And of course it’ll be run by a committee of philosopher kings, right?

Robin: Which of course, because the regulatory process approved it, it must be the best way to do it, right? What else would it be?

Jim: I think Karl Popper did a job of refuting that one.

Robin: But nevertheless-

Jim: It’s a possibility.

Robin: As you know, in firms, this was the approach, and it often works, right?

Jim: Right.

Robin: So it has a precedent. The fact that you did corporate culture reform programs and they sometimes work is a precedent for this sort of regulation at the larger level, right?

Jim: Yep.

Robin: So those of us who are skeptical of regulation shouldn’t be skeptical of all regulation because regulation works inside firms. Management regulates firms, that’s what they do.

Jim: And in a very totalitarian fashion.

Robin: Indeed, it’s a quite totalitarian regulation. And so there is a precedent for totalitarian regulation.

Jim: As a CEO of a public company, well within limits set by the board, but they were pretty fucking broad.

Robin: Exactly.

Jim: I could do almost anything I wanted.

Robin: And it was selection the disciplined you. And unfortunately, we worry that the world government culture regulatory board will not face such selection pressures.

Jim: I’ve often said I’m not for world government until we have at least five worlds. So then if we fucked up on one.

Robin: Then there’d be some selection effect and copying effect that is.

Jim: And both are useful, right?

Robin: Yeah, absolutely.

Jim: Horizontal transmission is huge. That’s one of the things that made the good aspects of our world, the good things from the Enlightenment have essentially penetrated most of the world by horizontal transmission.

Robin: Right. So if we would have competition, say doing organ sales, then we might allow places to do organ sales. The rest of us could learn from there doing it different. If we have a world culture that says, “Nobody must do organ sales because that violates our shared moral standards worldwide,” then we don’t get that kind of variation.

Jim: Yeah. The two examples I use against such top-down is two examples we’ve seen of totalitarian systems, Marxist-Leninism at its highest form. Certainly we would not have been very happy in retrospect of lock that sucker in as the world’s operating system and the Nazis somewhat less totalitarian, but even more horrifying in at least certain ways. We wouldn’t wanted to lock that one in either, and either of those could have occurred on a different set of contingencies in world history. And so why would we think that the Davos Man and his scheme is likely to be any better than the totalitarianisms we’ve seen in the past.

Robin: But we should notice we don’t have a good option here.

Jim: Let’s go to your last option.

Robin: Which isn’t that much better than the other three is the bottom line here. So you should be looking at all these, even if you got to plug your nose and not smell it as you examine it, some of these kind of stink, but you got to pick something. The last option is deep multiculturalism. So we mentioned earlier our society likes to think of itself as multicultural, and by that people mean a boutique multiculturalism wherein we celebrate variety of hairstyles and clothes and food and accents and holidays and maybe ways to decorate homes and places to visit. But we don’t celebrate or even tolerate variation in deep values such as gender equality or tolerance of homosexuality or capstone versus cornerstone marriage or long career paths, high degrees of education. The main features of Western or world culture are we don’t tolerate much variation in those, but we could.
So an analogy is that in the early US legal system, each county in the country pretty much had freedom to do whatever laws it wanted. Certainly each state did, and many states gave their counties such freedom. And so county laws could just vary enormously everywhere. And then that changed over the last few centuries through a series of moral panics. So there’s a guy named Stuntz who was a professor of law at Harvard who wrote a book about the history of American law, and he died soon after. And book came out two decades ago. And his story was that at the moment, law is very constraining on each county exactly because a series of Supreme Court rulings over the centuries in response to moral programs like responses to things like slavery, prostitution, alcohol, drugs, polygamy, there were just a number of these things that so many people in the nation were outraged that there was some difference somewhere, that they insisted that the Supreme Court lock that down and prevent that kind of variation.

Jim: And sometimes it’s done legislatively. Virginia, where we both live, is a Dillon Rule state, which in the state constitution. It states that counties and cities, and Virginia is weird and that cities are independent of counties, cities and counties shall only have those powers explicitly delegated by the legislature. And it’s one of the most extreme versions of the Dillon Rule in the country. So this was the case where it wasn’t by unelected officials, it was actually done as part of the legislative constitution making process.

Robin: But at least we can imagine here more concretely what a deep multicultural society might look like. First of all, they would need to have the legal authority to be different, but the idea would be to have a world of very many different cultures who have very different deep values, but nevertheless trade with each other and manage some sort of peaceful borders so that there’s not constant war, but allow cultural variety. And now this will require not just legal authority, but also lots of cultural insularity. We would need different places to not mix that much to be more like the Amish or [inaudible 01:11:49], where they resist contact with the other cultures so that they actually maintain substantially different deep values. It’s a big ask. So there’s a-

Robin: It’s a big ask. So there’s a philosopher, Nozick, who has a book called Anarchy State and Utopia, and his utopia in that book is this scenario basically, which he calls Anarchy.

Jim: And the work I do with some of my friends or associates we call game B, is of this nature. And then I am indeed working on the game B book with a co-author, be out one of these days. You know how book writing goes, right? It gets done when it’s done, and not before. And our view is kind of interesting. Top-down bottom-up system of free association of membranes, where membranes can be included in other membranes and any membrane can be in multiple membranes. And there’s a method of adjudicating the accords so that they don’t contradict, which then establishes the geometry of the multidimensional embeddings, et cetera. But one of our core holdings we call coherent pluralism, which is we have five or six or seven, it’s debatable, holdings that all entities that claim to be game B must agree to to put in their accords, but they are not at all about any of the issues which people argue about in politics in most cases.
So when I’m explaining coherent pluralism, I like to give the very extreme example of two bottom-level membranes. Let’s call them Dunbar-level villages or communities within larger cities, one of which may make abortion mandatory. No children may be born in this membrane. And the one two miles away would say abortion is absolutely prohibited. Oh, and birth control too. And both of those could be game B membranes and participate at least in some other hierarchies of membranes. And even with the top-level game B membrane, so long as they adhere to the five or six coherent part of coherent pluralism, which have nothing to do with abortion. Now the hard part here, and this is the part which I don’t know if human nature can tolerate, is could these two communities two miles apart learn to mutually tolerate each other?

Robin: Well, if they can’t do anything about it, they kind of have to, which is through most of human history, the world was many little local cultures who had not much ability to take over the neighboring cultures. And so they had to.

Jim: That’s not true. Look at the history. Let’s say highland agriculture in New Guinea prior to contact, it was constant Holocaust-level war back and forth.

Robin: Oh, sure. Right.

Jim: Where they essentially kill all the men, take the women, and they do it about every 30 years. It was a constant war.

Robin: Indeed.

Jim: And two villages could certainly each arm up and attack each other.

Robin: That wasn’t so much being offended by their abortion policies.

Jim: That is true. That is true. That’s just they wanted their women and they wanted their land, right?

Robin: Right. So the history of the U.S. raises the prospect here that if there’s this largest unit and somebody in it has discretion to make legal rulings on ambiguous cases, they would eventually use that discretion to push the majority side. So if 80% of the membranes are anti-abortion and they really get excited about that, then they might push this highest level court to enforce that on everyone else. That’s how it played out in the U.S.

Jim: Yeah. And of course we are well aware of that. So we have to come through in our operating system to avoid that. And we use the doctrine of subsidiarity, which originally developed by the Catholic Church of all folks, that argues for authority and rulemaking, et cetera, should be at the lowest level that is practical to address the problem.

Robin: Right. Now, if you would force this in the crypto style of some actual code, then you have less of a problem of some court reinterpreting it. But if your code is interpreted by a court of some sort, you’re more at risk of reinterpretation.

Jim: Yeah. One of the remedies we have in our operating system is any membrane can always leave any other membrane. So voice and exit is our core-

Robin: Right. Well, we had that rule in the U.S. too and then we changed our mind.

Jim: Well yeah, I argue that we did. That an honest reading of the Ninth and Tenth Amendment clearly say that states could secede.

Robin: There’s some ambiguity apparent.

Jim: Just enough ambiguity, right? So anyway, I am strongly with you that if it turns out to be compatible with human nature, a radical form of highly tolerant, real radical multiculturalism might be the answer.

Robin: It’s a big ask, we have to admit.

Jim: Yes.

Robin: So it doesn’t pull away from the other options in terms of how hard it might seem. It might seem more desirable.

Jim: Yeah.

Robin: But it’s not that much easier.

Jim: In fact, it might be harder. We know totalitarianism-

Robin: Works.

Jim: Works. You can do that, right?

Robin: You can initiate it. It’s the sort of thing that can happen. You know how to make it happen at least.

Jim: And it’s half life, which is actually interesting that corporations don’t have long half-lives either, right? So, totalitarian regimes, truly totalitarian regimes don’t seem to have a real long half-life either, probably for the Popperian reason that they make too many bad decisions.

Robin: Many people have been concerned that a global totalitarian regime could be much longer lasting.

Jim: Yeah, I’d be concerned about that.

Robin: So there are two more solutions we should mention here actually.

Jim: Okay.

Robin: One is get to the stars.

Jim: Yes.

Robin: So by the time our descendants are spread across many stars, the time delay in interaction and the limited interaction will pretty much ensure cultural variety and selection would be strong again.

Jim: As every science fiction space opera that doesn’t have faster-than-speed-of-light to transport, that’s a theme, right?

Robin: Exactly. So we just have to last until then.

Jim: Yeah.

Robin: But that’s not something we can speed up that easily.

Jim: That’s going to be probably hundreds of thousands of years.

Robin: Well, it could just be a thousand years really, but still, or even a few hundred. It’ll take a while to sort of spread out across many stars. But to get started on making it happen, that is once 10 colony ships head in 10 different directions, you’ve kind of assured that it will happen even if it’s not going to take a while to [inaudible 01:18:16].

Jim: Well, we could argue about that one another day. The amount of stuff that would have to be in those colony ships to actually be able to build replicatable are greater than one society.

Robin: Well now we get to the other solution. This was just about if people stay humans.

Jim: Right, right. And that’s the M strategy, right?

Robin: Right. So if we make artificial minds, Ms or AIs or something and they come to dominate our world, then if they are just very fast, even along earth, the time delays can be large and therefore we could get cultural fragmentation even on earth with fast enough minds.

Jim: At network and switching speed diversity. I had never thought of that one before. That’s crazy. I like that.

Robin: But it’s still a big ask. It’s still a ways off. We should probably try to solve this problem before then. We may not get there unless we solve this problem at least.

Jim: Yeah, I’m going to respond by, I think, okay, the last two interesting. But we could easily fuck up long before we get to either of those two. The M could happen fast, maybe, I’m a little bit skeptical on that. It’ll happen someday probably. I would suggest we have to choose one of the four.

Robin: Now if we just go through and talk more about how hard it is, basically Amish and the Heretim are not that eager for people to join them. They haven’t made that at all easy.

Jim: Yeah. I would expect the realistic way that would happen be a new cult gets started.

Robin: You’d have to start a new one. But that’s really hard. Lots of people have-

Jim: Tried.

Robin: There’s a big graveyard of failed attempts at starting cults.

Jim: Oh, yeah. It’s so much fun to be a cult leader, particularly when you get to choose all-

Robin: Most people don’t get to be the leader. We need people to be willing to join and not be the leader.

Jim: I know. I know. That’s the failure mode of most cults. So probably, yeah, the Ruts were originally Amish or Mennonites or some god dam kind of German Anabaptists when they came over here in 1690. They had the good sense around 1820 to become apostates.

Robin: Well, maybe they’ll take you back though, you say. It’s only been 200 years.

Jim: It’s only been 200 years. There’s still a little bit of that Mennonite DNA floating around in there someplace. You’re absolutely right. The reason they’ve been able to survive is because they don’t take in outsiders. And so probably go start 1,000 cults, fertility cults and hope that one or two or three of them make it.

Robin: Right. But this does shockingly mean I am pro cult now. The world needs more cults. Yay cults, let’s support them.

Jim: Game B gets accused of being a cult from time to time. And I don’t necessarily reject it. Cult being short for culture.

Robin: Indeed.

Jim: Okay, let’s talk about the difficulties of the other three.

Robin: So the conservative approach, again, it has a lot of support in this that there are a lot of people who just lean conservative personally. But actually making this big… Most of them aren’t… For example, when Republicans get into office, they almost never reverse previous changes. They just stop new changes and then the Democrats make more changes. So we have a ratchet, it only moves one way.

Jim: Yep.

Robin: So all of these conservative people don’t seem to have that much stomach for actually reverting changes and moving back to previous cultural states.

Jim: At least so far. Though, there are now, the National Conservatives and some of the more extreme Christian conservatives, they are willing to consider more extreme things.

Robin: Right. But they might at most form a small, make a splinter group where they all go there and do that. For example, the libertarians have all tried to move to New Hampshire and make a libertarian utopia, but they haven’t gotten that many people to move there. But it is somewhat more libertarian there. You got to admit.

Jim: On the other hand, what happened is a bunch of Massachusetts suburbanites moved there and over cut came the effect.

Robin: And then the totalitarian thing, you basically, you don’t get that answer unless you first make a totalitarian world government. There’s a really big risk there.

Jim: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Robin: But there are many people who would be willing to help make the totalitarian world government. But the question is whether they would even want to try to limit cultural change because mostly, say a democracy like in the U.S., the voters like these changes and they push for them and they embody them in law. And then you could just have a totalitarian world government that rapidly evolves its culture and drifts away without being inclined to restrain its cultural changes

Jim: Yeah. And with no ability to have a second opinion.

Robin: But it’s still got to be on the list because none of the others are really that attractive.

Jim: Well, I like four, but it’s just fucking hard.

Robin: Yes, it is. And we don’t even have very many good examples of it worldwide. If you could just make even a county somewhere, and actually show us enormous cultural variety within that county, we might be willing to try that elsewhere. But do a smaller scale experiment here, please.

Jim: And we always do say that about game B. It would be really foolish to throw the whole western civ into game B untried. So let’s try it first at a Dunbar-level community and then a cluster of them and then maybe take over a county and then someday possibly take over a state and maybe a small nation like Ireland or something like that. And then take over the world.

Robin: But we do have these warnings of previous communities that thought of themselves as multicultural and embodying a lot of varieties. Like the early U.S. legal system saying, or multiculturalist academics in the last few decades, they give a lot of lip service to multiculturalism. And they do actually, when they see some indigenous culture somewhere which gets steamrolled by capitalism basically, they don’t like that and they feel bad about it and they wonder what they could do to prevent that from happening. But that’s not quite the same as making new cultural variety. But they at least want to preserve some of the cultural variety that still exists in the world.
I don’t have that much hope that the kind of cultures they’re trying to preserve are actually going to be the ones that we could rely on. That’s the problem. Presumably we need new cultures that are willing to integrate into the world economy. And so that’s at least what the Amish and the Heretim praise. They are not. They have resisted some technologies in order to be insular, but they mostly accept modern technology and modern structures and function in them.

Jim: Yep. Game B, calls for every membrane to have a not only stable but exponentially growing input output strategy, import export strategy through its membrane. So we’re well aware that the math has to work, the operating system has to be fueled, and that being artarctic is not going to work in the modern world. People that [inaudible 01:24:46] try to push that line, say, all right, so we’re going to make our own computer chips? No, I don’t think so. No time soon. Right?

Robin: That’s the Mars solution. People think, oh, if we just have a Mars colony, then that’ll have cultural variety. That’s at the expense of autarky, basically. A Mars colony only works with pretty extreme autarky. If you want to do autarky, you can do it here much cheaper than on Mars.

Jim: Yeah, even a Mars colony is a huge lift. Not impossible, but it’s a huge lift. Probably asteroids make more sense early because there’s an easy economic payoff, which is mining all that material.

Robin: If you just want an insular community, there’s lots of places on Earth that are low population, as you know.

Jim: Yeah, yeah.

Robin: If you want to have an isolated community somewhere that has very little connection to the rest of the world economy, that’s quite feasible still.

Jim: I have made an offer to anyone that can donate a million dollars to the cause that we can buy some land, not some half-assed reef out in the ocean, but some actual land, 1,000 square miles of full sovereignty for a new and independent nation state. And no one’s been able to pull that off. They have this Honduras, new city thing, et cetera. But I actually read that law and they can rug pull that at any time as it turns out, and probably will if it’s successful. But I also say we need at least a 3 billion war chest because we have to not only get a thousand square miles of decently arable land, a port and three tactical nukes.

Robin: So let’s go back to basics here. Whenever you point out a problem, people like you to discuss possible solutions, and we have done that.

Jim: Right.

Robin: But honestly, there should be a place in the world for just pointing out problems without solving them. That kind of needs to happen first anyway.

Jim: Yeah.

Robin: And so here in this essay that we’ve been discussing, I’m pointing out a problem. At a first level, we should just ask, is it a problem that’s been pointed out before or is it actually a different problem? In what sense have people already been aware of this problem and trying to deal with it? And if it’s a new problem that we hadn’t quite understood as well before, how do we expect people to react to it as a problem? That is, I’ve already seen people… I published it in Quillette, which has a reputation for being associated with conservatives. So I’ve already seen people say that my essay is just about pushing conservative ideology. And that’s the things people have said about fertility, that fertility is a right-coded issue because those right people are trying to use fertility to repress the other side.
And that’s less obvious of a framing here. But I guess in some sense this is a thing that requires you to be somewhat willing to question your culture. So people who are not that big a fan of the dominant world culture today are more likely to embrace this narrative that there’s a drift problem, and others are likely to see it as you’re just trying to slip in sexual or gender inequality. You’re trying to reject gender inequality. I see it, that’s one of the key culture things that’s a problem here. So you’re trying to enslave the women. And that’s a framing that people may well offer here. Some have already, actually. A key question about any problem is how much it gets framed politically such that it can’t be a problem we could all solve because they’re trying to trick us into seeing that as a problem, but it’s not really a problem.

Jim: Yeah, yeah. Unfortunately, there’s such a humongous power to cause everything to collapse into team red, team blue tribalism. Even exceedingly intelligent people I’ve known for 40 years at the present time, if even a little bit looks like team red or team blue, they are almost impossible to resist the temptation to collapse to their tribal view.

Robin: Right.

Jim: One last thing before we go. As Mr, the inventor of the idea of opinion marketplaces, I’m going to put you on the spot of the four tracks that you suggested and none of the above, which is sort of either something else or just give me your best estimate probabilities.

Robin: My first recommendation is, if you could get people to adopt a way that they would use prediction markets in governance, then we can just ask the question to that mechanism, what to do. And whatever recommends, I’m a backing. I would just say ask the market what to do here.

Jim: Okay.

Robin: Basically, if we had a few [inaudible 01:29:09] a decision market whose outcome metric was, say, world population in 300 years or some measure of basically avoiding this problem, because collapse will probably be correlated with just a reduction in the size of the population and the economy, then I would trust that. If you ask me what I think is likely to happen, the most likely thing is clearly we don’t solve the problem.

Jim: So number five, nothing happens, right?

Robin: Well, basically we get the collapse down to the point where cultural selection can revive through either poverty, disease or fragmentation, or the replacement by the Amish and Heretim. That’s how this ends. We don’t solve the problem and we suffer the consequences.

Jim: Let’s choose amongst the others.

Robin: Well, of course, join the Amish, Heretim is a solution from the point of view of someone who succeeds in joining it.

Jim: Let’s eliminate that one. What’s that leave us? That leaves us-

Robin: I really don’t want to make a bet here. I don’t know. I don’t see any good answers here. That’s the problem.

Jim: Yeah. The radical multiculturalism is really hard and may or may not be within the remit of human nature. I think that’s to be determined. Totalitarianism we know works and it’s not that hard. It’s been done lots and lots of times.

Robin: Right. But you need a global, it needs to be global.

Jim: It needs to be global this time, which is going to be fairly difficult.

Robin: Or insular, at least a big enough chunk of the world that’s insulated from the rest of the world.

Jim: And conservative. It’s hard to see that happening at a worldwide basis, but it could happen at big nation state level.

Robin: Right. And then they’d also have to have insular. So solving at a smaller scale works fine if they’re sufficiently insular from the rest of the world.

Jim: Yeah. Could the country like the United States do a hard right move and then also, I don’t know if insular is quite the right, [inaudible 01:30:52] be somewhat insular.

Robin: Here’s a consideration that leans a little bit more in the direction of the conservative totalitarian one, which is if, as it seems, population will peak and then start to decline, then rates of innovation will also decline in proportion of the economy as it declines. So if that, say, falls by a factor of 10, then innovation rates would be 10 times slower. And rapid innovation is one of the main pressures that limits totalitarian and conservative solutions today. They aren’t very good at those things, at innovation. But in a world with much less innovation, there’s much less of a penalty for being a conservative or totalitarian regime. So those options may then become more attractive, more feasible. After, say, a century of decline, the population comes down by a factor of 10 or even 100 from its peak, why then, innovation will be vastly slower and those become more feasible.

Jim: Yes. And I actually had this thought this morning, I was doing prep, which is that assumes that innovation falls everywhere more or less equivalently. But let’s say the Amish or is probably a new cult, is both high fertility and very innovation aggressive.

Robin: Well then it can beat the other high fertility ones that are less innovation aggressive. But that’s a big, big ask.

Jim: And then it can also beat the declining innovation ones really easily if it has 20 times the effective per capita rate of innovation.

Robin: Sure.

Jim: And then it becomes very attractive to other people to adhere. Right?

Robin: But as we’ve seen, the solutions that have worked so far to highly insular, fertile subcultures have been low innovation.

Jim: Yep, that is true.

Robin: Adding innovation to that mix looks really hard.

Jim: All right. This has been a very good conversation with Robin Hansen about his recent Quillette essay, Beware Cultural Drift, Thoughts on Modernity’s Monoculture Mistake. Thank you again, Robin, for our wonderfully interesting conversation.