The future belongs to whoever shows up for it

Robin Hanson says that people would rather live like ‘foragers’ than like ‘farmers’:

I think a lot of today’s political disputes come down to a conflict between farmer and forager ways, with forager ways slowly and steadily winning out since the industrial revolution. It seems we acted like farmers when farming required that, but when richer we feel we can afford to revert to more natural-feeling forager ways. The main exceptions, like school and workplace domination and ranking, are required to generate industry-level wealth. We live a farmer lifestyle when poor, but prefer to buy a forager lifestyle when rich.

In other words, in a situation of contact between traditional cultures heavily adapted to vertical transmission and progressive cultures heavily adapted to horizontal transmission such that it’s possible for people to convert from the former to the latter, the latter will win out.

This situation of contact exists in the case of religious groups like the Haredi Jews and the Amish, but the retention rates of at least the latter (I haven’t looked into Haredi retention rate) have gone up over time.

The historical evidence shows a decline in defection in some Amish communities in the last half of the twentieth century. Defection in Geauga County, Ohio, for example, dropped from 30 percent for those born during the 1920s to 5 percent for those born in the 1960s. Similarly, the exit of people from the Elkhart-LaGrange community in northern Indiana dipped from 21 percent for those born in the 1930s to 10 percent for those born in the 1950s. The loss of Amish-born people in Nappanee, Indiana, dropped from 55 percent in the 1920s to 16 percent in the 1970s.

How can this be explained? Cochran and Harpending attribute it to genetic selection: if there’s a genetic component to the plain, ‘farming’ personality that the choice to join the Amish church selects for (and they think there is), then, each generation, you get biological evaporative cooling: the people with the lowest ‘Amish quotient’ leave, and its average across the group increases.

The key assumption here is that personality has a genetic component. If you grant that, everything else falls into place.

Let’s say a space alien lands in Belgium and redesigns all its buildings overnight, so that the buildings in the north of Belgium are designed for very tall people, the buildings in the south of Belgium are designed for very short people, and the buildings in the middle of Belgium are designed for people of average height. (To avoid the issues posed by sex differences in height, let’s also say the alien converts all of Belgium to Islam, adds separate men’s and women’s facilities to every building, and carries out the height calculations separately for each sex.) If you’re a very tall person living in the south or the middle of Belgium, you’ll get sick of having to duck all the time and move north; if you’re a very short person living in the north or the middle of Belgium, you’ll get sick of being unable to reach things and move south. Everyone knows that there’s a genetic component to height – so everyone would expect that, after a few decades of this, there would be a genetic height gradient in Belgium. It might take a few generations – you could have people who didn’t eat well in their childhood moving south and having tall children – but it would eventually show up.

There wouldn’t be a genetic height gradient in Belgium now, but that’s because the selection mechanism isn’t there. To step out of the analogy: if your social context is uniform in ‘farming’/‘foraging’ tendencies, your genetic tendency toward one or the other won’t matter for the purposes of selection. It’s only when you have ‘farming’ and ‘foraging’ populations in close contact that the selection would apply – and the strength of the effect is going to depend on how easy it is to move from one to the other.

Strictly speaking, no genetic explanation is necessary. If the fertility and retention rates of a group are high enough, the group will grow over time – and the group doesn’t even have to grow; it just has to decline at a lower rate than the general population for it to show proportional growth. And since retention rates can, for whatever reason, increase over time, it’s even possible for a declining group to turn around, as long as its fertility rate is far enough above replacement to allow it.

Anything that causes higher fertility is selected for, and anything that causes lower fertility is selected against. This is the principle behind IQ shredders. In this case, if ‘farming’/‘foraging’ tendencies have a significant genetic component, there’s a ‘foraging’ shredder: the exodus from ‘farming’ to ‘foraging’ social contexts is not a time-invariant law about the relative strength of the two memeplexes or of horizontal to vertical transmission – it’s a temporary process of selection. The ‘farmers’ burn off their ‘foragers’, but they have more children, so they win in the end.

14 responses to “The future belongs to whoever shows up for it

  1. Pingback: The future belongs to whoever shows up for it | Reaction Times

  2. bob sykes August 16, 2015 at 11:07 am

    Every aspect of every living organism has a genetic component, and that includes behavior, political affiliation, religious attitudes, various psychological pathologies, etc. People usually refer to nature vs. nuture (or environment). But it should be noted that the so-called environmental component of organism variation is properly termed the non-genetic component. Statistical procedures distinguish between genetic and non-genetic (null hypothesis) influences. The non-genetic component includes the error term, which might be bigger than any assumed environmental influences.

    There is nothing progressive about hunting/gathering societies. Foraging cultures have hierachies that are enforced by violence. The murder rate is quite high compared to modern societies, and a surprisingly high fraction of total deaths are due to interpersonal violence. Slavery is common, especially for women captured in raids. Women are often the main target of raids. Foraging societies are, however, more equal in terms of material possessions (by necessity, and the degree of equality is usually exaggerated), and sharing is usual and expected, especially meat.

    Some people might be interested to learn that the Amish population now spreads from central Pennsylvania out through Iowa, and everywhere the population is growing rapidly, and their farm holdings are expanding. Largely Amish Holmes Co., OH, is the most rapidly growing county in Ohio, percentagewise. Despite lower yields, Amish farms are more profitable than conventional farms: no chemical fertilizer, no powered machinery, no fuel, no electricity, no telephones, TVs or computers, largely hand-made clothing and shoes, cash transactions only, no interest charges, child and communal labor (often donated). The Amish also have a tradition of skilled craftsmanship, and they sell all sorts of hand-made products to the “English.” They also hire out as carpenters, masons, construction laborers. They are pacifist, often quietist and generally make good neighbors. There are, of course, degrees of orthodoxy among them. The Mennonites are a closely related sect.

    • With the thoughts you'd be thinkin August 17, 2015 at 1:17 am

      Unfortunately they require government religious toleration, will the US government and society continue that?

      • nydwracu August 17, 2015 at 3:09 am

        The Amish are a lot more fragile than the ultra-Orthodox, sure — they don’t have an Israel.

        But they’re on land that’s basically useless to the Corridor mandarins, and, very much unlike the ultra-Orthodox, they don’t do politics, so there’s no culture-war angle. What incentive would they have not to continue that toleration? Other than running out of enemies.

    • nydwracu August 17, 2015 at 3:04 am

      A family member in Maryland bought an Amish shed a while back.

      As for pity: that’s right. We can’t coordinate, and they know it. “Everyone hates television (or the news), but if we don’t watch it, what will we talk to each other about? Everyone hates Facebook, but how else will we invite people to things?” And so on.

      Neal Stephenson keeps talking about socially-motivated regulation of technology — in Seveneves he even made it explicit and coined the term ‘amistics’, the derivation of which should be obvious — but AFAIK no one’s picked that up the way people have picked up franchulates and burbclaves.

      Hanson’s farmer/forager theory is seriously bizarre, but it’s somehow picked up traction. Here’s his description of foragers:

      [Foragers] eat a healthier more varied diet, and get better exercise. They more love nature, travel, and exploration, and they move more often to new communities. They work fewer hours, and have more complex mentally-challenging jobs. They talk more openly about sex, are more sexually promiscuous, and more accepting of divorce, abortion, homosexuality, and pre-marital and extra-marital sex. They have fewer kids, who they are more reluctant to discipline or constrain. They more emphasize their love for kids, and teach kids to more value generosity, trust, and honesty.

      [Foragers] care less for land or material posessions, relative to people. They spend more time on leisure, music, dance, story-telling and the arts. They are less comfortable with war, domination, bragging, or money and material inequalities, and they push more for sharing and redistribution. They more want lots of discussion of group decisions, with everyone having an equal voice and free to speak their mind. They deal with conflicts more personally and informally, and more prefer unhappy folk to be free to leave. Their leaders lead more by consensus.

      The first two sentences are a caricature of ‘farmers’, the last four sentences are distorted, and everything in the middle is a polite way of saying “executive function deficit” — or so it seems, but why should the arts be incompatible with executive function?

      It could be that it’s relying on the separation of ‘art’ (i.e. either top-down events or informal gatherings with little ritual element, but mostly the former) from the sort of things you’d expect from ‘farmers’: ritual and craft. How would people who go to a rave every few months and maybe listen to some guy with a guitar at the coffee shop once a week stack up artwise against people who have music in church every Sunday? How would Amish craftsmen stack up against New York museumgoers?

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  4. nickbsteves August 17, 2015 at 6:48 am

    The ‘farmers’ burn off their ‘foragers’, but they have more children, so they win in the end.

    True, but what if the foragers they burn off are all the smart ones that are going to build nukes and destroy all the farms or something? What if… having more children isn’t winning??!! I mean it should be. But it certainly isn’t winning in Africa or Afghanistan right now. More a recipe for mass starvation than anything.

    • spandrell August 17, 2015 at 12:34 pm

      The Afghans are a nasty bunch, but they’re still around, and colonizing Europe, not the other way around. Starvation never killed a whole people.

  5. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2015/08/16) | The Reactivity Place

  6. Handle August 20, 2015 at 11:09 pm

    “This situation of contact exists in the case of religious groups like the Haredi Jews and the Amish, but the retention rates of at least the latter (I haven’t looked into Haredi retention rate) have gone up over time.”

    Last thing I read was that Hasidic Jews have higher retention rates than they did a generation or two ago, especially in Israel.

    One thing to consider is that the difficulty of defection from one’s sect into another, or to mainstream society, is proportional to the difference between them, and there might come a point where the gap becomes so large that it overcomes whatever attraction may exist. That makes recruiting from outside harder, but retention inside easier.

    Depending on the numbers, that might favor a strategy of creating purposeful distance and distinction from the most likely seducer, and also ‘handicapping’ your members by denying them the signals that would allow them to easily integrate and succeed in the mainstream. Not just funny dress, but how attractive, exactly, are your prospects in the outside world these days without a college – or hell, even high school – degree? Your members can learn all they want, but be sure to deny them the mainstream’s badges and credentials.

    In the past, defecting from, say, a Mennonite community to some strongly Baptist or Lutheran functional society in the nearly village and with easy assimilation into an instant new social group made the first leap easier. And there were plenty of nearby ‘stepping stones’ all the way to the mainstream culture. Today, there’s an abandoned ideological wasteland of evaporated sects between the Mennonites and the next feasible step, and it seems too scary and strange. I’d guess this is as much behind the increased retention rates as any rapid selection of genetic-personality factors.

    Conversely, if you are too close to the mainstream and desperate to keep up with it, that makes it too easy for your members to defect, and simultaneously pointless for recruiting existing mainstreamers, since what do they have to gain by moving to something not so different? Hence the disparate collapse rate of the Mainline Protestant Churches.

    • nydwracu August 29, 2015 at 7:24 am

      Fewer than a third of 25-to-34-year-old Americans have a bachelor’s degree or higher. As for high school, it’s possible to get a GED. (I didn’t bother, but then, I have a degree.)

      How far is it from the Mennonites to mainstream culture? There’s a defected Mennonite in a few of the same IRC channels as me.

      There’s almost certainly an environmental change behind that drop — for the defection rate in one community to fall by half within two or three generations, you’d have to have one. But if there’s any genetic element to it, the same thing holds. If cities stick around in their current forms for a few hundred more years (which they won’t — they’ll get worse), smart white Americans will tend not to like cities.

      (Now I want to see statistics on fertility rate by IQ and political outlook. If smart-and-rightist is being selected for relative to smart-and-leftist… Then again, I have to wonder how much of that stuff is actually genetic, as opposed to correlating with caste/culture and caste/culture tending to be inherited from family.)

      If there’s a significant genetic component, we should expect to see retention rates to rise over time in general. I wonder what data from before 1920 looks like, or data for Hasidic Jews. (What’s their situation like?)

      Looking through the book I linked: conservatism of Ordnung correlates positively with retention rate (which could be explained by either hypothesis), public school students tend to defect more often than Amish school students (probably evidence for nurture), and defections tend to cluster in families (probably evidence for nature): “In one study, 39 percent of the families with children who defected lost three or more.”

  7. j October 22, 2016 at 3:29 pm

    Regarding Haredim, they learn from age three- four and trained in intellectual work such as interpreting obscure texts in dead languages like Aramaic. They have no problem in completing a three week programmer course and start working. Their wives do so.

    Many are successful businessmen.

    I do not think that lack general education is an obstacle to leave the fold, not for Haredim and not for Amish. It is more the revulsion, the repugnance caused by the emptiness, the obscenity of Western lifestyle.

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