The day after

Well this is about to get interesting. There are a lot of bleary eyes and shocked expressions around me this morning. I can’t say I’ve seen any overt celebration in person (my Facebook feed is another story).  Perhaps there are some that are secretly celebrating for their own reasons or perhaps it’s just the crowd I am with this week for work.

There are a couple of things that worry me and a couple that give me hope. First the worries.

Our 45th presidency was going to be a shit show either way. The thing that concerns me about the particular shit show my fellow Americans have selected is that it’s going to be highly unpredictable. Say what you will about the defeated candidate, she was predictable to a fault. The only thing that anyone knows about our president-elect is that it’s all about him. No, I’m not worried about his seeming bigotry, racism or misogyny. Maybe I’m fooling myself, but I think that was more than half just for show driven by a keen sense of what he needed to say to win. What I am worried about is that we don’t know what he will actually do, only that but will be whatever he calculates is best for him at the time he is making the decison. It will be interesting to see how his ‘deplorables’ react the first time that his personal gain runs in the opposite direction of theirs. More on that later.

My other worry is not the mandate the president elect might take from his near landslide victory, but more the mandate that some of his more extreme supporters will assume exists for them. What will they now view as acceptable behavior and conversation?  You could argue that the SJW phenomena has grown under the moral shelter provided by the exiting administration. What form of social discourse will emerge in the next four years?  SJW has eroded western values like freedom of speech and the free exchange of ideas and it’s reaction will do more of the same. Funny how the results are the same even though the motivation seems to be diametrically opposed.

But it’s not all bad. The first thing that gives me hope is to think back to all the things our current president promised and compare that to what he actually did. As near as I can tell Gitmo is still open, we’re still in at least 2 wars in the middle east and we still have a major terrorism problem.  That’s not an indictment of Obama, but rather a call to realize that stump speeches are one thing and reality is quite another.  Perhaps the only thing less true than campaign promises are words uttered in bars a half hour before closing time.

My second hopeful thought may be a bridge too far. It is definitely a strange combination of dystopian and Pollyanna world views. It’s clear that we’ve “kicked over the table” to borrow a phrase from one of the talking heads I watched this morning in a effort to distract myself with a bit of schadenfreude.  That’s what a majority wanted and a minority is in shock over today.  As this plays out, could this be the catalyst for both groups to realize that the game is rigged?  Will the “winners” realize that while they changed the means, the ends are the same, causing them to see through and break out of the ruling and ruled paradigm?  Will the “losers” in their shock realize that they lost because they over reached by using government force to drive their agenda, causing them to return to peaceful, rational means of change?

If we’re going to make a change (or burn it down all depending on your POV) then let’s not be half assed about it.  Carpe diem.

90 Second Book Review: The Myth of the State

I don’t consider myself a philosopher.  I’m more of more a “fan of philosophy” to borrow a phrase from my favorite podcaster.  I still have to look up the definition of meta-physics and epistemology.  I am not sure of the difference off the top of my head between existentialism and positivism.  But that doesn’t keep me from following along, perhaps in the same way that a dog enjoys television.

My latest jaunt into the philosophical realm was “The Myth of the State” by Erst Cassier.  This was a HBP find that I must admit I bought completely based on the title (give me a break, it was something like $3).  What I thought Ersnt would teach me is why the state is an illusion of our collective conscious or unconscious mind.  It doesn’t really exist.  It’s just some people telling other people what to do.  What the book is actually about turned out to be quite different, but just as interesting.

The Myth of the State was published posthumously, and with a little controversy about how it was finished.  It came on the heels of Cassier’s blockbuster (if there can be such a thing in the 20th century as a philosophical blockbuster) Essay on Man (which I happened to add to my tsundoku pile a few weeks back).  In this book, Cassier gives a rather complete (especially for only 300 pages) and fascinating account of how the state has used myth to propagate itself.  If it were written today it might be called something like “Lies the state tells you (for your own good of course)”.

For this review, I will give a brief overview of the first 90% of the book to focus on the concluding chapter.  I think its extremely relevant to what I sense is going on these days.

The opening section attempts to answer the basic question “what is myth” and comes to the conclusion that myth is the stories we create to explain things when we don’t have any better way to understand them. I’ve come to realize how important story or narrative is over the past few years.  Harari argues in Sapiens that its the “one thing” that allowed humans to rule the world (while everything else carries our stuff).  At the top level, narrative seems to decompose into rational stories (aka hypothesis) and mythical stories (aka fairy tales). Cassier completes the opening section with an exploration of the impact that myth has on language, psychology and social life.

With that basis set, the center section, which is the bulk of the book, tells of the different twists and turns in the development of state myths from the time of Plato, who propagated the idea of the “legal” state through to Machiavelli’s contribution of removing the connection between religion and transcendent order (as an aside, the two chapters on Machiavelli contained some of the most interesting analysis of his work that I have ever read) through to the Romantic’s reversal of the Enlightenment view that myth “had been a barbarous thing, a strange and uncouth mass of confused ideas and gross superstitions, a mere monstrosity” to the view that myth was “the mainspring of human culture”.

The final section sets up the few philsophers and thinkers that, in Cassier’s view had the biggest impact on 20th century political myth (aka those that we can thank for the mess we are in).  He begins with a discussion of Carlyle’s theory that Hero Worship is “oldest and firmest element in a man’s social and political life”.  From there, it was just a hop skip and a jump to some of the terrible ideas put forward by Gobineau on race worship and the totalitarian race.

From there of course we end up at Hegel.  I will set the time aside to read what he had to say for himself one day, but I do get the sense that I understand some of Hegel’s ideas better after reading Cassier’s synopsis.  Cassier posits that the form of Hegel’s arguments had for more impact than their content.  What’s more Cassier is of the opinion that Hegel himself would have strenuously objected to the arguments made by people using the form of his arguments after his death (if he could find a way to project from the Absolute Idea…).  That being said, I still can’t get my head around Hegel’s notions about the state being the ultimate expression of freedom.  Perhaps this is an example of what he means that philosophy is only a product of its time, and can’t project forward or backward.

Now to the final chapter.  I am not exaggerating when I say that the concluding chapter hit me so hard I was contemplating the myth of HPB actually being a portal from another universe that sends me things I am supposed to read.  It lays out in 20 or so pages everything that I have experienced in politics as exemplified by the current election cycle.  I am going to attempt to communicate the idea Cassier is trying to get across in this chapter (and arguably in the book overall) with as little commentary as possible.  Just enough to connect the thoughts without just quoting the whole chapter and making a TLDR post RTLDR.

As you read this think about what you’ve just witnessed.  Regardless of who you plan to vote for tomorrow (I’m out of state and darn it if I didn’t forget to absentee ;-), think about the larger context in which this “discernment” process has occurred.  Think about how much or little real content there has been.  Think about how often emotion was employed instead of reason.  Think about who has benefited.  Then let me know if you see any parallels between what Cassier was warning about at the start of WWII and what we’ve all just witnessed from both “sides”.

The chapter starts with a discussion about how “unusual and dangerous situations” drive “modern” man to abandon reason and resort to myth.

The call for leadership only appears when a collective desire has reached overwhelming strength and then, on the other hand, all hope of filling this desire in an ordinary and normal way, have failed.  At these times the desire is not only keenly felt, but personified.  It stands before the eyes of man in a concrete, plastic, individual shape.  The intensity of the collective wish is embodied in the leader. The former social bonds – law, justice and constitutions – are declared to be without any value.

He then claims that “modern” man is too sophisticated to buy into the “simple” myths of our “savage” ancestors:

If modern man no longer believes in natural magic, he has by no means given up the belief in a sort of ‘social magic’.  If a collective wish is felt in its whole strength and intensity, people can be persuaded that it only needs the right man to satisfy it.

Cassier moves on to point to what he views as the most significant development in the 20th century relative to political myth:

…our modern political myths appear indeed as a very strange and paradoxical thing.  For what we find in them in the blending of two activities that seem to exclude each other.  The modern politician has to combine himself into two entirely different and incompatible functions. [He is the priest of a new, entirely irrational and mysterious religion.  But when he has to defend and propagate this religion he proceeds very methodically.  Nothing is left to chance’ every step is well prepared and premeditated.  It is this strange combination that is the most striking feature of our political myths.

Myth has always been described as the result of an unconscious activity and as a free product of imagination.  But here we find myth made according to plan.]

Henceforth myths can be manufactured in the same sense and according to the same methods as any other modern weapon – as machine guns or airplanes.  This is the new thing – a thing of crucial importance.

Cassier’s point seems to be that over time, rationality has replaced myth as the primary narrative structure.  This has happened everywhere except in the realm of politics, where myth still reigns supreme, except now we have scientifically created myths.  Myths on steroids.  GMO myths.

Cassier outlines three changes that happened to allow this myth making machine to come into existence:

  1. Change the function of language from conveying meaning (i.e. semantics)  to conveying emotion.  Anyone triggered much these days?
  2. Create of new “magical” rites that “lull asleep all our active forces, our power of judgement and critical discernment, and take away our feeling of personal responsibility.”  Remember…you have to vote…or else you won’t get your sticker. 
  3. Reinstate “divination” since “Prophecy is an essential element in the new technique of rulership.  The most improbable or impossible promises are made.” Which do you trust more: campaign promises or liars?

The book ends with this, actually somewhat hopeful, view:

I have no doubt that later generations will look back at many of our political systems with the same feeling as a modern astronomer studies an astrological book or a modern chemist an alchemistic treatise.

And, echoing Francis Bacon’s advice that “victory over nature can only be won by obedience”,  he even starts us down the path of how to get there:

We must learn how to obey the laws of the social world before we can undertake to rule it.

Maybe we all need to become at least a fan of philosophy.

Illuminating the idea of striving without clinging

I suppose it was inevitable as I made an attempt to get more serious about meditaton this year that I would get exposed to some Buddhist ideas.  I haven’t sought them out (if anything I have tried to find a purly secular meditation approach), but as I said was probably impossible to avoid them entirely.  I don’t have anything against Buddhism per se – it just wasn’t my goal to learn about it as part of my developing meditation practice.

That being said, one of the ideas that came to me over the last year which has had a profound impact on my overall outlook, the lens through which I perceive my own actions and how to make them better is the idea of striving without clinging.  The basic concept seems to be that to acheive enlightnement (which I understand to be some combination of peace, happiness and knowledge of the way the universe works) you have to take active steps in that direction (i.e. striving) but you can’t get attached to the actual goal you are trying to reach (i.e. no clinging).

While the idea of striving without clinging is given as a persecription to acheive enlightment, I find it a good recipe to get almost anything done.  As I read The War of Art, I would say Pressfield’s message is all about learning to strive without attachment.  You have to want to accomplish something, but not want it so much that your ideas about how it should be when you are done keep you from ever getting started.  That is one of the secrets to breaking through what he calls “resistance”.

In what is becoming my standard practice, I am reading a few books right now and I came across a few quotes that shed some further light on this idea of striving without clinging.  Both are philosophy books, but otherwise they are quite different.  While striving without clinging is just a few words, its a pretty difficult concept to grasp, so anytime I see something that helps me understand it a little better, I think its worth noting and sharing.

The first quote comes from Erst Cassirer, in the The Myth of the State, in a chapter discussing the contributions of Machiavelli to modern political thought:

In the twenty-fifth chapter of The Prince Machiavelli explains the tactical rules for this great and continual battle against the power of Fortune.  These rules are very involved and its not easy to use them in the right way.  For they contain two elements that exclude each other.  The man who wishes to stand his ground in combat must combine in his character two opposing qualities.  He must be timid and courageous; reserved and impetuous.  Only by such a paradoxical mixture can he hope to win the victory.  There is no uniform method to be followed at all times.  At this moment we must be on our guard, again we must dare everything.  We must be a sort of Proteus who, from one moment to another, can change his shape.  Such a talent is very rare in men.

The second quote comes from Frederic Gros in A Philosophy of Walking in a chapter on Slowness:

The illusion of speed is the belief that it saves time. It looks simple at first sight: finish something in two hours instead of three, gain an hour. It’s an abstract calculation, though, done as if each hour of the day were like an hour on the clock, absolutely equal.

But haste and speed accelerate time, which passes more quickly, and two hours of hurry shorten a day. Every minute is torn apart by being segmented, stuffed to bursting. You can pile a mountain of things into an hour.  Days of slow walking are very long: they make you live longer because you have allowed every hour, every minute, every second to breath, to deepen, instead of filling them up by straining the joints.  Huttying means doing several things at once, and quickly: this, then that; and then even something else.  When you hurry, time is filled to bursting, like a badly arranged drawer in which you have stuffed thingswith not attempt at order.

Slowness means cleaving perfectly to time, so closely that the seconds fall one by one, drop by drop like the steady dripping of a tap on stone.  This strectching of time deepens space.  It is one of the secrets of walking: a slow approach to landscapes that gradually renders them familiar.  Like the regular encounters that deepend a friendship.  Thus a mountain skyline that stays with you all day, which you observe in different lights, defines and articulates itself.  When you ae walking, nothing moves: only imperceptibly do the hills draw closer, the surroundings change.

I still struggle to fully grasp the idea of striving without clinging since it seems such a contradiction. I struggle even more to practice it.  But I think Cassierer and Gros, each in their own way, have helped illuminate it for me just a bit more.

Maybe school isn’t such a great network builder after all

I made a brief argument in my last post about higher education, that it used to be good at three things: building a social network, access to unique knowledge and provinding certification.  I went on to point out that the first two had already been relplaced with things that do or soon will do a better job and that there is something on the way that might replace the third.  Today I found an article that points out, maybe it wasn’t so good at the networking side in the first place.

Jeffrey Tucker argues that there is something innate in the design of school that keeps students from being able to develop any real social captial.  My personal experience was exactly as he describes: build a group of friends for 4 years, then start all over, then do it again, then try to get a job.  It seems there must be a better way, and Tucker points to apprenticeship as one potential answer.  I think age mixing is another important aspect.  Peter Gray shows how age mixing is a key to learning for both older and younger students.  Tucker seems to agree:

If you look at the social structure of homeschooling co-ops, for example, younger kids and older kids mix it up in integrated social environments, and they learn from each other. Parents of all ages are well integrated too, and it creates a complex social environment. The parents know all the kids and, together, they form a diverse microsociety of mutual interests. This is one reason that homeschooled kids can seem remarkably precocious and poised around people of all ages. They are not being artificially pegged into slots and held there against their will.

The key to wisdom is calling things by their proper name.  Realizing that school has very little to do with education seems increasinlgy wise.

Could this pop the education bubble?

I found myself in a interesting discussion about a month ago with another guy about my age and two current college students.  We talked about a wide array of topics but at some point along the way we got on to the subject of their experiences as current college students.  I made mention of the idea that the patterns last seen in the housing crisis of 2008 are repeating themselves in higher education, namely debt that is too easy to acquire driving prices higher and making it too easy to too many people to make poor decisions.  The question we couldn’t answer was: what happens when that bubble pops?  In the housing bubble, the underlying asset was devalued and the government pumped in massive amounts of money to those companies deemed too big to fail.  What is the asset to devalue in the case of college education?

I’m still not sure of the answer, but I do think we’ll all learn what it is sooner rather than later.  Colleges and Universities have been loosing their grip on two of the three things that make them unique over the last few decades: the chance to form a world class network (see LinkedIn) and access to knowledge (see Google).  The one thing that has kept them going is the credential, aka the diploma, degree or certificate.  College enrollment has continued to climb (and debt along with it) despite the growing sense that its not worth the time or money for the simple reason that the only way to get most good jobs is by having that piece of paper.  Employers would love to find a better system, since they know that at best the paper tells them what the applicant was interested in and at worst all it tells them that the applicant can at least “show up” for two to four years.

Well, the monopoly on the credential may be coming to an end with start-ups like Praxis.  I ran into them a few years ago at a home school convention, thought it was an interesting idea, but didn’t really give it much more thought.  They came into my awareness again yesterday when I listened to the interview that one of their founding team members, Zak Slayback, did on the School Sucks Project.  In some ways, to continue the housing bubble analogy, what Praxis is doing seems a little like the tiny house movement: don’t worry about brand names, focus on what you need and don’t get into debt doing it.  I think Praxis, or something like it, will be the pin that pops the education bubble.  Like all bubbles (aka pyramid schemes) it’s the most recent ones to buy in that will pay the biggest price.

90 Second Book Review: Self Reliance

This book doesn’t need an intro, so I’ll make it short: Self Reliance was one of several essays written by American Transcendentalist movement.  Emerson is also sort of a Socrates to Henry David Thoreau’s Plato.

You can read it online for free, but the specific version I am reviewing here was put together by the Domino Project.  It puts passages from the original text together with excerpts from other authors and famous thinkiers throughout the ages that were trying to make the same point as Emerson.  I’ve read  it several times, but this was an interesting way to read it anew.

As the title implies, the focus of the essay is individuality.  Each time I read it, a new section speaks to me, and this time around it was this one, on the subject of travel as a means of “finding oneself” (spoiler: Emerson is not a fan):

The soul is no traveller; the wise man stays at home, and when his necessities, his duties, on any occasion call him from his house, or into foreign lands, he is at home still, and shall make men sensible by the expression of his countenance, that he goes the missionary of wisdom and virtue, and visits cities and men like a sovereign, and not like an interloper or a valet.

I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe, for the purposes of art, of study, and benevolence, so that the man is first domesticated, or does not go abroad with the hope of finding somewhat greater than he knows. He who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself, and grows old even in youth among old things. In Thebes, in Palmyra, his will and mind have become old and dilapidated as they. He carries ruins to ruins.

Travelling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.

This was an epic summer of travel for me and my family.  I spent all of 4 nights of June in my own bed, and two of those were for less than 6 hours.  We went to Russia, Ireland and New Hamsphire.  And I had business trips to Italy, Germany, China…and Detroit.  Emerson made me think more deeply about the motivation for the voluntary / non-work related trips.  Was I looking to learn something more about myself, or more about the world?  Upon reflection it was definitely the later, so my trips were Emerson-approved.

Emerson has a good point of course.  If you travel hoping to learn about yourself, you are destined to fail.  You have to have a good amount of self knowledge before you take that first step out of your door if you are going to be able to process all that you will experience when travelling through anything roughly approaching an objective lens.  Since everything you experience at home or abroad is perceived through the subjective lens of your personal experience and the narrtive you contstruct around it, having some idea about how that might color things will help you strip some of that away and see things on your travels as they truly are.  Without that, then you are likely to simply reinforce what you already think you know instead of learn something new about the world.

The passage that was paired with this selection is from Pythagorus, and I think the editors did a good job of finding the same idea expressed in a far more company fashion, two thousand years earlier:

No one is free who is not a master of himself.

Without moral support the very strength of a state becomes it’s inherent danger.

A few weeks ago I got home from an annual long weekend in southern Kentucky and immediately caught whatever illness that my wife and daughter had been dealing with in while I was camping.  It wasn’t any big deal really, but one night I woke up at around 2 in the morning with a raging sore throat so decided to get out of bed to have some tea.  It so happened that a book was sitting out on the table, and with nothing better to do, I decided to read a few pages.  2 hours later, I decided it was time to get some more sleep.

This quote is one (of many) that I thought worth sharing (emphasis added) given many of the things that seem to be bothering us all these days:

The desire to have “more and more” is just as disastrous in the life of the state as in individual life.  If the state yields to this desire, it is the beginning of its end.  The enlargement of its territory, the superiority over its neighbors, the advance of its military or economic power, all this cannot avert the ruin of the state but rather hastens it,  The self-preservation of the state cannot be secured by its material prosperity nor can it be guaranteed by the maintenance of certain constitutional laws.  Written constitutions or legal charters have no binding force, if they are not the expression of the constitution that is written in the citizens’ minds.  Without moral support the very strength of a state becomes it’s inherent danger.

– Ernst Cassirer, The Myth of the State

Syntopical podcast listening: why it’s so hard to have a real conversation these days

Despite the cooler fall weather, I’ve still had to mow quite a bit which means podcast listening time.  It’s not all bad though since of late I mostly work from home, which has cut down on my commute related podcast listening time, so about the only time I get to catch up on the 30 or so podcasts I subscribe to is when I’m rolling around on my Dixie Chopper.

As I headed out to the shop to mow last night I saw that two of my “regular listens” had relatively recent episodes, so I added them to my play next, hopped, on fired up, and started to mow.

First up was Episode #309 from Dan Carlin’s Common Sense show (Dan’s new site is very pretty, but I can’t figure out how to link to specific episodes, hence the link to the top level page…if you are reading this later, you’ll have to scroll to find it if you want to listen to the whole thing).

Dan said something that really resonated with me early in this episode when talking about the “envy” he feels for his mom and her book club.  I think perhaps one of the reasons I have been doing book reviews here is to share the things I have read and to try to start up a conversation with people that have read the same thing.  I too am interested in having a conversation about what the facts mean vs. what the facts are.  Dan’s point seems to be this: how can we have a conversation about meaning if we don’t share any common conception of “the truth”?

Here is an excerpt of the audio from where he makes this point (I assume it’s OK to post this…if not, then this section of the post will disapear):

The rest of this episode is fascinating, pretty much like all of them are, so I highly reccomend you listen to it all and suscribe to his cast.

Next up was Episode #449 from the School Sucks Project , which is part 2 of a two part conversation wth Julia Tourianski about a video she created about “50 differences between men and women“.  Before he got into the main discussion, Brett included a clip of audio from a 1984 interview of a former KGB agent, Yuri Bezmenov by G. Edward Griffen, a member of the John Birch society (which every time I hear, I can’t help think of this).  Here is an excerpt of that audio (same note as above…if exceprting / reposting is not allowed by SSP, then I will take this down):

Again, SSP is one of my “always listen” to podcasts so if you find anything in the clip above interesting, make sure to subscribe.  And if you are interested in more of what Bezmenov had to say, you can get an electronic copy of one of his books for free from

I can sort of see why Brett decided to include that given where the rest of the conversation with Juliana went, but I found the connection between what I was listening to from Dan just an hour earlier even more interesting.  No I don’t think the lack of meaningful discourse is due to some vast KGB conspiracy to undermine the US (“Мы вас похороним!”), but I do find it interesting that the inability to discern truth is the exact outcome that Bezmenov says comes from the demoralization stage.

But of course this could all be disinformation.  Who can really say?


90 second book review: Red Queen

Red Queen, by Matt Ridley, is another book that made it on my “to read” list somehow that I can’t quite remember, and came to be on my “to read” pile by way of Half Price Books. Since I can’t remember how I became aware of it, I also can’t remember what interested me about it initially or what I hope to get out it when I added it to my list. When I saw it on the HBP books shelf thought I recalled it was “on the list” and upon scanning the back and inside covers it seemed to fit in a genre of books that I typically enjoy: pop science.

Red Queen fits that genre to a tee, although it focuses on a domain of science that I have never felt particularly strong in: biology. I think I have taken a grand total of one biology course, my sophomore year of high school. I don’t recall doing particularly poorly…or particularly well. I also don’t recall being particularly interested. At least not as interested as I was in what I saw at the time as the “purer” science of physics and it’s close relationship with the maths. I somehow avoided biology as a college course altogether, yet here I found myself reading a nearly 400 page biology book. Strange are the path ways that self directed learning will take you sometimes.

The title of the book comes from Lewis Carroll’s character of the same name in Through the Looking Glass. In that story the Red Queen (not to be cofused with the Queen of Hearts in the first book) has a dialog where she explains that she has to keep running faster and faster just to keep in the same place since the scenery around her is accelerating as well. In mathematic, rather than literary terms, the story focuses on the idea of a zero sum game. Which is the claim that Ridley makes about evolution.

I have been giving more thought and study to evolutionary theory of late. Some of that is from my interest in one of the story lines in Sapiens: that cultural evolution through language and narrative, became a faster mechanism than biological evolution and that’s why we Sapiens rule the planet today. The rest of it comes from the opening of the Arc Museum just a few miles from my house. Suddenly the ability to succinctly state and defend the case for evolutionary theory has become much more relevant.

Ridley argues that rather than some of the traditional conceptualizations of evolution as a progressive, if not always linear process, it is in fact circular. At any given point in time, one branch of the evolutionary tree may be able to get ahead of its competition, but given time for enough random mutations and selection to occur, the leader is overtaken and the cycle begins again. Evolution may seem progressive if you pick specific start and end times, but taken as a whole, it never really gets anyone anywhere. He writes:

“Before ‘civilization’ and since democracy, men have been unable to accumulate the sort of power than enabled the most successful to be promiscuous despots. The best they could hope for in the Pleistocene period was one or two faithful wives and a few affairs if their hunting or political skills were especially great. The best they can hope for now is a good-looking younger mistress and a devoted wife who is traded in every decade or so. We’re back to square one.”

(NB: There are a lot of quotes like the above throughout the book. Ridley points out early on that he is not making any moral judgements about the behavior he describes. He is merely trying to describe the behavior as it happens and come up with a narrative that explains why that fits the facts. That’s called science.)

He bolsters his argument with theory after theory from a variety of different biologists (all supported with experimental evidence). The book is literally chock full of them, so I will just list a few that I found interesting here:

  • The early church was so obsessed with sexual matters for less heavenly and more earthly reasons. Namely, as a way to preventing private wealth accumulation and leaving more church coffers:

“It (the church) had little to say abut polygamy or the begetting of bastards, although both were commonplace and against doctrine. Instead it concentrated on three things: first, divorce, remarriage, and adoption; second, wet nursing, and sex during periods when liturgy demanded abstinence; and third ‘incest’ between people married to within seven canonical degrees. In all three cases the church seems to have been trying to prevent lords from siring legitimate heirs.”

  • Three of the things that many evolutionary theorists point to as being uniquely human my have evolved in parallel and were dependent on each other:

“Men keep an eye on their wives by proxy. If the husband is away hunting all day in the forest, he can ask his mother or his neighbor is his wife was up to anything during the day. In the African pygmies that Wrangham studied, gossip was rife and a husband’s best chance of deterring his wife’s affairs was to let her know that he kept abreast of the gossip. Wrangham when on to observe that this was impossible without language, so he speculated that the sexual division of amor, he institution of child rearing marriages and the invention of language – three of the most fundamental human characteristics shared with no other ape – all depend on one another.”

  • The development of our oversized brains (as compared to our ape brethren), and the resulting cognitive capabilities that make us unique, may have been an accidental outcome of sexual selection for youth:

“If men began selecting mates that appeared youthful, then any gene that slowed the rate of development of adult characteristics in a woman would make her more attractive at a given age than a rival. Consequently, she would leave more decedents, who would inherit the same gene. Any neoteny (the retention of juvenile features into adult life and which is also credited with allowing further brain development after birth) gene would give the appearance of youthfulness. Neoteny, in other words, could be a a consequence of sexual selection and since neoteny is credited with increasing our intelligence (by enlarging the brain size at adulthood), it is to sexual selection that we should attribute our great intelligence.”

  • The basic genetic programing that all modern men and women are walking around with:

“There has been no genetic change since we were hunter-gathers, but deep in the mind of the modern man is a simple male hunter-gatherer rule: Strive to acquire power and use it to lure women who will bear heirs; strive to acquire wealth and use it to buy other men’s wives who will bear bastards.”

“Likewise int he mind of the modern woman is the same basic hunter gatherer calculator, too recently evolved to have changed much: Strive to acquire a provider husband who will invest food and care in your children; strive to find a lover who can give those children first class genes. Only if she is very lucky will they be the same man.”

Beides a series of fascinating evolutionary theories, I came away impressed with the imaginations of the various biologists that came up with these theories. I have become aware of an entirely different approach to narrative construction that is more complex than the straightforward physics of force A applied to point 1 results in force B at point 2. Evolutionary narrative construction involves enough varied groups and and interests that a Game of Thrones writer would be well served by picking up a copy of this book for plot ideas.

Ridley knows that many of his ideas will be used by some to make political arguments on one side or another since he writes in the Epilogue:

“No doubt its (red queen evolutionary narratives) politicization and the vested interests ranged against it will do as much damage as was done to previous attempts to understand human nature.”

He shares his story anyway since having these stories is how we break out of the seeming pre-destiny of genetics. Our genetic “programming” may seem to some like an inescapable prison. I view it differently (thanks to Sapiens): the power of language and story has given us both the tools to become aware of our base level “programming”. With this awareness we can then write a new higher level “program” that over rides what our genetics tells us to do. Culture eats genetics for breakfast every day. We just have to decide what we’re cooking.