The Moral Landscape – A Four Part Review (Part 4)

More thoughts on Sam Harris’s insightful new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, 2011. I read it with two friends, and interpreted it through an evo devo universe lens. I originally planned to critique the entire book but I’ve since moved on to other readings, so this will be it for now.

Chapter 3 follows:

The Moral Landscape, Chapter 3 – Belief

Agreements (and my rewording/additions in italics):

Harris uses the OED definition of belief, particularly “mental acceptance of a proposition, statement, or fact as true.”

This is helpful, but we can get more specific. I prefer the way the great 20th century philosopher, historian and science writer Jacob Bronowski approaches belief, in Science and Human Values, 1965 and The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination, 1979. As I recall him, Bronowski talks of 1. “intuition/faith”, 2. “philosophy/experience” and 3. “science/experiment” as three fundamental types of thinking. We accept propositions based on our intuition or faith, based on our philosophy or experience, or based on our science or experiment. Bronowski concludes the first book above with a Platonic dialog between an intuitive artist, a practical public servant, and an experimentally-driven scientist, and uses them to represent three potentially fundamental and complementary thinking styles: 

1. Experimental, creative, intuitive, and faith-based (evolutionary*) thinking
2. Adaptive, practical, logical/philosophical, experience-based (evo devo*) thinking
3. Scientific, factual, replicable experiment-based (developmental*) thinking 

*The labels in parentheses are my additions to Bronowski’s model. I’m not sure, but I believe 🙂 he would have approved. As Harris reminds us, all of these are technically beliefs, but as Bronowski reminds us, the first category of thinking styles is the most common connotation for belief, the second is rational argument or experience, the third is science. This is a very practical categorization system for our thinking.

In these books, and in his sublime BBC documentary series and book, The Ascent of Man, 1976, Bronowski regularly visits these three categories of thought, and convinces us that we use and need all of these types of thinking to survive and thrive. In common parlance, beliefs are thoughtful intuitions and faiths that we have little justification for, beyond gut feeling or social custom. Thinking them to be true is an individually and socially creative act. We also have thoughts that have some practice, experience, logic, or philosophy to guide them. Finally, we have thoughts that have been to some degree validated via experiment, replication, scientific method. Bronowksi argues that we always need intuition, but as society matures, we increasingly gravitate away from pure faith-based thoughts to ones more informed by philosophy and experience, and in special cases, scientific knowledge, to the great benefit of civilization. But intuition, and a modicum of faith, must always remain, no matter how complex we become. Thus religion never goes away, nor should it, but it does get continually reformed.

“The less competent a person is in a given domain, the more he will tend to overestimate his abilities.”

This has been described as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and is one very important source of cognitive bias. Ignorance and certainty often go hand in hand. One hallmark of complex thinking is when we qualify our statements, and are aware of places where we have a number of competing theories, all of which have some merit, and where we presently have insufficient data to form a judgment. We need to be tolerant of uncertainty and ambiguity, as it is a key component of nature itself, with its profusion of evolutionary experiments, many yet to be judged by the environment. In fact, we have to move beyond tolerance to actively championing diversity and experiment, especially in those controversial and uncertain areas where the right way or ways are not yet clear.

“The level of humility in scientific discourse is one of its most striking characteristics.”

Well said. The way that even a Nobel laureate usually speaks about subjects outside their expertise (there are of course exceptions) is something we should all strive for, in our discourse about the deepest and most important things, like our beliefs and values.

“Political conservatism… is a fairly well-defined perspective characterized by a general discomfort with societal change and a ready acceptance of social inequality… The psychologist John Jost and colleagues analyzed data from twelve countries, acquired from 23,000 subjects, and found this attitude [political conservatism] to [also] be correlated with dogmatism, inflexibility, death anxiety, need for closure, and anticorrelated with openness to experience, cognitive complexity, self-esteem, and social stability.”

Brilliant diagnosis! Yet we must recognize that liberals are equally “conservative” (parochial, protectionist, change-averse) on the economic dimensions of society. They gravitate to trade restriction, to onerous economic guarantees,  to high trade barriers, to change-averse unions, jobs for life, etc.

Liberals, in other words, are socially evolutionary (freedom oriented) and economically developmental (constraint oriented, tariffs, unions, guaranteed wages). Conservatives are socially developmental (constraint oriented) and economically evolutionary (freedom oriented).

Conservatives are the natural leaders in socially developmental aspects of our society (defense, security, intelligence, rulemaking, social norms and traditions) and in the economically evolutionary (market, innovation oriented) aspects as well. Liberals are natural leaders and key players in all the social innovations of modern societies, and in all positions of power involving constraint and regulation of economic activities. Both play critical evo and devo roles. Demonize either and you miss seeing why the system works as it does.

“If a person’s primary motivation in holding a belief is to hew to a positive state of mind—to mitigate feelings of anxiety, embarrassment, or guilt, for instance—this is precisely what we mean by phrases like “wishful thinking” and “self-deception.” Such a person will, of necessity, be less responsive to valid chains of evidence and argument that run counter to the beliefs he is seeking to maintain.”

Well said. We must be willing to undergo mental disruption and discomfort, to unlearn bad beliefs, if we seek to live an evidence-based life. Ideally, we will allow such disruption to become increasingly frequent the older we get, as there is more known, and more we have to unlearn, at least in particulars. If we can live with this disruption, we can be the kind of elderly that grow in wisdom and stay relevant, even as our knowledge must become both increasingly general and conditional, and our ability to change the world gets increasingly narrowly defined. Fortunately, our electronic extensions are continually rejuvenating themselves, and the more we embrace them, the more resilient we become.

The neurologist Robert Berton, On Being Certain, 2008, says schizophrenia is a disorder of pathological certainty, and obsessive compulsiveness is a disorder of pathological uncertainty. Certainty is primarily an emotional process, and is connected to but different from the chains of evidence and argument that determine the correctness of any belief.

Lovely insights.

There are genetic differences in the types and quality of human reasoning. “People who have inherited the most active form of the D4 [dopamine] receptor are more likely to believe in miracles and to be skeptical of science; the least active forms correlate with rational materialism.” There are also genetic differences in our innate risk tolerance, which in turn greatly influence our reasoning and conclusions. Does this variation mean that we cannot identify unproductive extremes? No.

Enlightening! Nurture’s contribution to human mental life gets steadily clearer.

I expect that in the future, we will come to understand two fundamental things about the genetic differences in human reasoning and belief systems: 1. There is a developmentally healthy envelope of variations in risk tolerance, willingness to believe strange things, and other thinking parameters. The vast majority (usually 99%?) of humans are almost always functioning within this envelope, and those times when they aren’t we can define as deprivation or disease. 2. Within this envelope, there is no developmental “optimum” that we can usefully define. Having a healthy evolutionary variety and distribution within the envelope of normal function will turn out to be as important as having developmental bounds on the size of the envelope.

This is all that will be left of the “eugenics” visions of the 20th century reductionists: just a better definition of the exceptional cases of disease, not discovery of an optimal configuration among a great variety of healthy norms. As healthy thinking is an evolutionary process, adaptation will always remain contingent and dependent on local context, and impossible to globally predict or define.

“Skeptics given the drug L-dopa, which increases dopamine levels, show an increased propensity to accept mystical explanations for novel phenomena. The fact that religious belief is both a cultural universal and appears to be tethered to the genome [and dopamine levels in the brain] has led scientists like [Robert] Burton to conclude that there is simply no getting rid of faith-based thinking.”

Absolutely! I doubt Harris would agree with this, but I see these dopamine experiments as beautiful evidence that our very brain machinery is biased to make us do: 1. Intuition/faith-based thinking, 2. Argument/experience-based thinking, and 3. Scientific/experimental-based thinking. All three are fundamentally necessary processes for thinking creatures in our universe, in my evo devo view. 

“Reason can bridge the gap between believers and nonbelievers.”

Harris explores how we purged such harmful beliefs as the belief in Witchcraft, and the cruel punishments that purported witches received in the West a few hundred years ago, and which they still receive in some African nations today. Reason can help us sort out harmful and regressive from progressive beliefs. But while I agree strongly with him here, I also think our human need for a rather large set of faith based-beliefs remains fundamental, in a world where complexity, for now, remains far greater than our minds.


“There does not seem to be a process in nature that allows for the creation of new structures dedicated to entirely novel modes of behavior and cognition.”

Disagree. We can’t yet say this definitively, but I’d bet universal evolutionary development guarantees regular emergence of new behavioral and cognitive novelty. I’d bet the consciousness and behavior modes of a human are qualitatively novel vs. that of an insect, and I’d predict the AI’s hyperconsciousness, given its new level of structural freedoms, will be qualitatively novel yet again.

“Much of our behavior and cognition… has not been selected for at all.”

Strongly disagree. All our behavior and thought undergo memetic selection. You just choose not to see or discuss it. You seem to be in the Denial phase of the death of an ultra-Darwinian world view (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Death, and Acceptance being the full progression). You don’t even confront or critique the 35 years of literature on memes, in your entire book. I recommend Bob Aunger’s Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science, 2001 as a start into that literature.

“I have argued there is no gulf between facts and values, because values reduce to a certain type of fact.” [Harris found both constructs used the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) and emotional areas in his research].

There is no such “reduction” occurring. It’s interesting that both scientific and ethical constructs use the MPFC and emotion, but that doesn’t make them the same. Ethical judgments are a subset of scientific judgments. Some ethical judgements are factual-scientific (developmental) others are creative (experimental) and they may or may not be or turn out to be factual. 

On Lie Detection science: “Whether or not we ever crack the neural code, enabling us to download a person’s private thoughts, memories, and perceptions without distortion, we will almost surely be able to determine, to a moral certainty, whether a person is representing his thoughts, memories, and perceptions honestly in conversation.”

I don’t share Harris’s faith in the perfectability of this science, by imperfect humans at least. Better lie detection will surely weed out the amateurs, but it will also breed better liars. The best liars, the ones that beat polygraphs today, are capable of amazing feats of self-deception, and belief in their own lies. Those that dissociate (create multiple personalities) may be detectable by neuroimaging, but what of those that learn to believe their own lies with their “whole mind”?

“Choosing beliefs freely is not what rational minds do.” [On his debate with Philip Ball].

Strongly disagree. In the realm of our intuition and faith-based thoughts, quite a number of these beliefs are freely and consciously or unconsciously chosen, based on how they make us feel, as Philip Ball apparently argues, and it is rational to do this. When we get argument or experience, or even science to constrain these beliefs, it is also rational to revise our beliefs. But we often don’t have even argument or experience to guide our first beliefs in an abstract or new area of thought. The act of intuitive or faith-based belief, the search for propositions that we think might be true, is a creative action, a necessary evolutionary step toward greater adaptive complexity and development.

“Believe a proposition because it is well supported by theory and evidence; believe it because it has been experimentally verified; believe it because a generation of smart people have tried their best to falsify it and failed; believe it because it is true (or seems so). This is a norm of cognition as well as the core of any scientific mission statement.”

Yes, but this is only a subset of the beliefs we use and need! Many of our beliefs are intuitive, or faith-based, and may not yet even be conscious, much less supported by argument or evidence. Consider our faith that the universe is comprehensible, or amenable to life, or people mostly moral. Most of our thinking may be based on such bottom-up, neural-net constructed beliefs. They are the foundation on which the tip of our conscious beliefs, argument, evidence, and science has emerged. We shouldn’t ignore them. At the same time, we can marvel that even with this sea of intuitive thinking as our inheritance, so much rationality emerges so predictably in all of us. Developmental psychology is yet another amazing example of the power of universal development.

Thoughts? Comments? Let me know, thanks. [tweetmeme source=”johnmsmart” only_single=false]


  1. A really appreciate this quote: “Demonize either and you miss seeing why the system works as it does.” as it applies to my own thoughts on society, politics and religion over the last year. I think the principle of open mindedness is a critical and manageable aspect of my own ability to evolve my own mental framework.

  2. Thanks Jake. Well said. And the older we get, not only is open mindedness important, but unlearning the mistakes we’ve learned earlier becomes critical too. Openmindedness, unlearning, self-criticism, all seem key to the kind of learning that leads us to better models in later life.

  3. In reference to:
    “Conservatives are the natural leaders in socially developmental aspects of our society (defense, security, intelligence, rulemaking, social norms and traditions) and in the economically evolutionary (market, innovation oriented) aspects as well.”

    Where do you see this natural leadership on display?

  4. Most of the leaders in defense, mil-intel, churches, many types of economic and political standards bodies are Republicans. We naturally gravitate to such folks for their social conservatism and economic liberalism. At the same time, we gravitate to the Dems for their social liberalism and economic conservatism in a range of different domains.

    Individual politicians of each type may or may not lead as intelligently as we’d like (particularly in our current highly unequal democracy), but we do gravitate to them intuitively for different things, and I think we will continue to do so indefinitely, as I believe these are natural divisions, not just cultural choices. Comparative political and economic system study in a range of countries should make this clear, if in fact these are natural divisions we should see in all capitalist social democracies, as I suspect is the case.

  5. This is a good discussion. I haven’t read Harris’ book, but I’m familiar with some of his views from articles and videos. Much of what is described and analyzed in the post fits my own experience and understanding. Like you, I’ve had a mixed response to Harris. I’ve never shared his antipathy to religion, particularly his hatred of Islam. I was raised in churches that were highly progressive, liberal, egalitarian, and tolerant which emphasized in my mind how religion can also be a force for social good. So, even though I’m now non-religious and agnostic, I don’t feel any need to be in opposition to religion and the religious. One of my closest friends is also a far leftist and yet has always been attracted to theism, such that he has converted to Bahai. But another good friend of mine is Islamic. Sometimes I sense how religion is problematic, including for those on the left. Still, I don’t see an inherent and inevitable conflict between all forms and aspects of religion and science.

    In your post, one point of interest is the following: “The neurologist Robert Berton, On Being Certain, 2008, says schizophrenia is a disorder of pathological certainty, and obsessive compulsiveness is a disorder of pathological uncertainty. Certainty is primarily an emotional process, and is connected to but different from the chains of evidence and argument that determine the correctness of any belief.” I’ve thought about this ever since I came across data showing that schizophrenics are, on average, more conservative. One has to wonder about what that means, in contrast to liberals having higher rates of mood disorders, addiction, and alcoholism — the liberal mental health issues probably being the result of high openness and low conscientiousness. It also likely has to do with the liberal’s greater ability with abstraction, as a tool for imaginatively constructing internal boundaries, which can cause conflict with conforming to external boundaries of social norms (e.g., don’t do illegal drugs).

    Anyway, along with what Berton says, the schizophrenics I’ve personally known have been demanding of certainty and hence averse to uncertainty. I suspect the reason for this is that schizophrenia compromises the ability to create and maintain clearly demarcated internal boundaries of the self (to distinguish the self from others and from the world), and so it causes the schizophrenic to seek boundaries outside of themselves (in the well-defined categories of social orders and thought systems). Amusingly, one schizophrenic friend of mine has turned to religious fundamentalism and social conservatism for certainty while another schizophrenic guy I’ve extensively talked with has, instead, turned to an obsession over logic and scientism. My sense is that it really is the same basic motivation, in that neither of them can hold their views lightly with greater nuance and internal discernment. They both have a dogmatic need for certainty and clarity in order to absolutely judge and demarcate within their perception of what is right and wrong, true and false, real and fantasy.

    There is only one thing I’d disagree with you about or, rather, to which I’d offer a major qualification. Yes, you are probably correct to some degree that, “Both [economic liberalism and conservatism] play critical evo and devo roles. Demonize either and you miss seeing why the system works as it does.” But balance between these two has to be understood in an evolutionary context, specifically as we live in a society that is far out of balance. Conservatism, in general, seems most fundamentally to be an evolved instinctive response of threat management; if it is usually in more muted form under typical and less antagonistic evolutionary conditions, as seen with most traditional societies. Consider the non-reactionary and often much more egalitarian worldviews and practices of hunter-gatherers who have maintained their traditional lifestyles, rituals, diets, and territories (e.g., non-hierarchical, easygoing, and pacifist Piraha who lack all permanent positions of authority).

    Corey Robin argues that reactionary conservatism didn’t fully exist until the modern period. Reactionary conservatism, instead of being identical to traditionalism, would be in complete opposition to it. The extreme reactionary right of modern society and economics, particularly in WEIRD countries (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic or pseudo-Democratic), is arguably the unnatural consequence of the extreme chronic stress and intergenerational trauma of immense high inequality. Disparity and hierarchy to this degree has never existed before and so we have no appropriate inborn responses for how to live healthily and in balance under such oppressive conditions. That is where we have to realize that economic ideology, in this WEIRD socioeconomic environment (With the US being the WEIRDest), is going to be expressed and distorted in ways that otherwise would not occur under the evolutionary norms that have existed for most of human civilization and human existence.

    You write that, “Yet we must recognize that liberals are equally “conservative” (parochial, protectionist, change-averse) on the economic dimensions of society. They gravitate to trade restriction, to onerous economic guarantees, to high trade barriers, to change-averse unions, jobs for life, etc.” That conclusion, one could argue, is over-generalized in that it does not apply to all kinds of societies. There is cross-cultural social science research (between and beyond WEIRD countries) that points to other possible interpretations; but I’m willing to listen to counter-evidence in defense of your assessment, as I’m not entirely sure I correctly understand what you are asserting. For my opposing position, I’ll share what I’ve learned from research in this area and the examples that demonstrate its real world significance.

    Liberal-mindedness, as an evolved cognitive style and ability, has two main components that are closely related but distinct. To be high in social liberalism is to be low in right-wing authoritarianism (RWA); and one might note that even supposed ‘left-wing’ authoritarianism is likewise socially conservative (e.g., Stalinism opposed and oppressed social liberals and those under the protection of socially liberal society: trade unionists, anarcho-syndicalists, libertines, LGTBQ individuals, feminists, free speech advocates, a free press, independent scholars, radical thinkers, experimental artists, minorities, etc). As for the second component, to be high in economic liberalism (i.e., economic egalitarianism) is to be low in social dominance orientation (SDO); and, to continue with the previous thought, both ‘right-wing’ and ‘left-wing’ authoritarianism in being inherently anti-egalitarian is, of course, high SDO — unsurprisingly, economic elites, along with right-libertarians, in American capitalism measure high in SDO.

    Yet keep in mind that there are those who are low in both RWA and SDO, high in both, or low in one and high in the other. Unsurprisingly, Double Highs are the most conservative and double lows are the most liberal. So, to clarify, a high RWA but low SDO would likely conform to the norms, conventions, expectations, and rules of a socially liberal society where the socially liberal were the majority in society, media, and politics; just as they’d do the same for a socially conservative society of a socially conservative majority —- as they simply make good conservative followers in ‘conserving’ any social order. This is why studies show that most authoritarians are on the political right in long-term capitalist countries and on the political left in former communist countries; such that the old guard communists in post-Soviet countries are often referred to as ‘conservatives’. A Double High, however, would never fit into and support a socially liberal society; but they might seek to co-opt it in order destroy it, as how the Nazis occasionally, if inconsistently and confusedly, used liberal, progressive, and socialist rhetoric to promote a Double High social order of oppression and unfreedom.

    SDO has received less focus, but research in recent decades has been quickly catching up. High SDO doesn’t necessarily or simply correlate to any specific policies, as it is a general promotion of greater hierarchy, inequality, and disparity (i.e., anti-egalitarianism); and a general prejudice toward and fear of those further down on the social ladder of position and value (poor, homeless, minorities, foreigners, etc). By the way, unlike high RWAs, high SDOs don’t fear outsiders for not assimilating but actually fear their assimilating for the latter challenges the clear boundaries of hierarchical position — high RWAs want everyone to submit and conform to the social order in eliminating social distinctions within the group identity, but high SDOs want to maintain social distinctions that define the social order of hierarchy. There can be a rough semi-egalitarianism to high RWA, even as it only applies to those who are part of the perceived in-group, whereas outsiders and non-conformers will be treated with extreme prejudice. Although this psychological profile can manifest in many ways, it is true that WEIRD-style inegalitarian policy of economic conservatism is one possible expression, among many, of this deeper SDO moral impulse.

    The point is that, in reference to right-wing economics (i.e., neoliberalism serving neoconservatism with underlying elements of neo-feudalism, neo-imperalism, and neo-colonialism), it would be misguided to call this economic liberalism; despite the rhetoric, often empty and deceptive rhetoric, of laissez-faire capitalism. The SDO moral value invoked is strict and rigid hierarchy with everything having a place and everything in its place. It’s about maintaining elite dominance and rule; prestige, privilege, and power. In capitalist realism and social Darwinism, this is class war between the haves and the have-nots, between the capitalist owners, managers, investors, and high-end professionals on one side and everyone else on the other (entry-level workers, paper pushers, housewives, the poor, unemployed, homeless, vagrants, imprisoned, institutionalized, etc) where the latter increasingly takes the form of a permanent underclass of economic segregation in an increasingly caste-like society with falling rates of socioeconomic mobility and a shrinking middle class, as has been the case in the US for the past half century.

    To call this freedom is problematic rhetoric, to say the least. It’s freedom for those with wealth, power, and opportunity; in the way that slaveholders were ‘free’ in not being slaves themselves. Really, this is not freedom but liberty, with a vast difference of meaning between the two. The world ‘freedom’ etymologically originated from Germanic language and has the same source as ‘friendship’. It is defined as being an equal member of a free people and to be among friends who would support and protect one’s cultural rights and personal autonomy. There is an underlying egalitarian sensibility in this and it arose in a low inequality society. The sense of ‘liberty’ we inherited, on the other hand, comes from Latin. It took shape under slavery in the Roman Empire and was adapted to the slave-like conditions of feudalism, and this is why the word liberty was most popular in the American slave South among slaveholding aristocracy. For millennia, liberty meant an individual having the civil rights and legal privileges of not being enslaved while living in a slave-based society surrounded by others who were enslaved.

    As such, the defining feature of economic liberalism as low SDO pro-egalitarianism is not any given policy. Take higher taxes, specifically progressive taxes where the wealthy are taxed more. This isn’t an inherent value of economic liberalism. Rather, this is how economic liberalism responds to high SDO in an illiberal society of economic conservatism with high inequality. Economic liberalism is egalitarianism and high inequality is inegalitarian, and so the two are at incommensurate. But, in a low inequality society, economic liberals wouldn’t be any more likely to support increasing taxes, rather than cutting them. Most of the economically liberal policies in our society are simply an attempt to moderate and constrain an illiberal and inegalitarian economy controlled by and serving the interests of high SDOs and Double Highs (i.e., Dark Tetrad demagogues and manipulators) in alliance with or rather in control of high RWA followers — as a side note, Double Highs are the most common leaders of far right groups.

    The same clarification applies to how societies relate. Pro-egalitarian economic liberals in America are operating under adverse conditions where their egalitarian values are constantly being stressed, undermined, and attacked. This is also true in the international economic system that is dominated and influenced by many global superpowers with ruling elites that are high in both RWA and SDO; such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. This is on top of pro-egalitarian economic liberals seeking to resist and regulate the power of high SDOs and Double Highs that maintain economic rule in their own country, not to mention these same forces gaining power in other Western countries. Under these near impossible conditions, low SDO egalitarians, especially Double Lows, feel backed into a corner and forced to promote trade restrictions and worker protections, not as an ideal response but as a defense against perceived moral wrong and moral harm (i.e., anti-egalitarianism) that threatens the very possibility of a free economy and a free society.

    What these low SDO egalitarians understands is that a free economy is not possible without a free society where everyone involved and affected by it are also free. There is no such thing as partial freedom as freedom limited to some. That is to say freedom never exists separate from fairness and justice; or, to put it in other terms, negative freedom (freedom of opportunity; i.e., liberty) is only real and manifest to the degree that there is positive freedom (freedom of results; i.e., freedom) — a tree is known by its fruits. As inequality is higher in the US than has ever existed before and continues to grow, the same problems of inequality apply at an international level. But, if the American and global economy were low inequality, these same low SDO egalitarians would promote economic liberalism through a more open and unrestricted economy of freedom, fairness, and justice. Even as the moral impulse is the same, the mode of expression and means of achieving it diverge under starkly different socioeconomic conditions; that of the possibility of a true meritocracy and, on the opposite side, that of a plutocracy; even if the latter poses as a meritocracy as reactionaries are wont to do).

    One may disagree with the economic ideals and aspirations of Double Low egalitarians. But it’s important to understand them on their own terms, not as stressed and crippled under high SDO anti-egalitarianism. With these reactionary economics, everything gets tainted by the reactionary. That is because even in reacting to the reactionary one ends up taking on elements of the reactionary. This relates to liberalism as a hothouse flower, in requiring perfect conditions. One can seen this in the kind of research mentioned in this post. Cause a liberal to feel stress or fear, or somehow cause cognitive overload or another form of cognitive compromise. What will result is that the liberal will temporarily fall back on much simpler and stereotypic thinking. That is easily explained by higher thought (cognitive complexity, cognitive empathy, etc) of the neocortex, as a later evolutionary development, requiring much greater effort and energy.

    A further complication is that most of this social science research has been done in the US and so falls under WEIRD biases. We are simply seeing the results of how people behave in a specific society and culture, one that happens to be the highest inequality economy in the world during the highest period of inequality in human existence. Would liberalism be so easily undermined and would high SDO anti-egalitarianism be so dominant with the lower stress of far lower inequality? One suspects not. Considering this, we aren’t studying what liberalism means in a more fully liberal society. Instead of doing this research in the US, we might get a more accurate appraisal of what liberalism is all about by studying populations in the most liberal and well functioning social democracies in Scandinavia. But even then those countries find themselves in a weakened position in having to defend themselves against the high SDO forces of the global superpowers and economic elites that control the international markets.

    This makes it difficult, as we don’t have an alternative global economy to compare against. That is the problem with American-influenced WEIRD capitalist realism as neoliberalism having come to define the conditions under which all research is done and from which most funding is sourced. The lowest of the low SDO egalitarians simply have never been studied to any great extent because the expression of egalitarianism in general has been suppressed for many generations. Take for example the religious Hutterites who are communal farmers. They probably measure high on RWA but low on SDO. Here is the interesting part. They were so successful at agriculture that some state governments, at the behest of individual and corporate farming interests, passed laws restricting how much land communities could own in order to hobble them in market competition. But, if a genuine free market had been operating, those communal farmers might have come to dominate American agriculture and have had a major impact on the kind of economy that would’ve developed. The economic results we have today did not come about naturally but are political creations, as based on socially constructed ideological systems of power.

    There is a reason to bring this up. It’s not about which ideology one personally supports. Even if one opposes Marxism, it must be acknowledged that Marxism is not Stalinism. Karl Marx would’ve hated Stalinism. And, under Stalinism, Marxists were persecuted, banished, and killed. The reality, according to his own words, is that Marx advocated a free market because he thought a more egalitarian society would form naturally from the bottom up and could not be enforced from above. As such, he saw laissez-faire capitalism as a necessary step that we must go through. One can agree or disagree with this, but in essence Marxism in its original form was libertarian. In fact, the earliest self-identified libertarians were anarcho-socialists who appeared in the late-19th century European workers movement. Those left-libertarians are still around today, although many of them now identify as anarchosyndicalists who advocate worker-owned and worker-operated businesses that are democratically organized. One real world example is that of the international Mondragon Corporation that first formed among the Basque. In a low inequality society and economy, there would surely be far more examples like this and far more research on and public knowledge about the extremes of low SDO egalitarianism.

    • Hi Ben! Thank you kindly for this deeply nuanced and historically grounded comment. I agree, in general, with most everything you say here. I think the economic/social freedom/order evo/devo split that I see between Right and Left is a particularly universal one, something that cross-cultural political and social science will find in coming years. But how that split translates into policy and social structure will be greatly dependent on the history, culture, technology, economics, and institutions in each country, as you point out. In technologically dominant and plutocratic countries like the US today, the split will mean much less than it would in more egalitarian countries, it will mean less in low-representation presidential democracies like ours vs. parliamentary democracies, etc.

      I’d love to send you a copy of my new book, Introduction to Foresight, which explores a variety of evo-devo models,

      I can’t find a way to reach you on your blog. Please email me at if you think you might like to skim through a review copy. We have many, many similar views I see, so where we differ is particularly instructive to me. I greatly appreciate the insights you’ve posted at Thanks again for your insights!

  6. I’m sure that it is true what you say about the difference between, on the one hand, “technologically dominant and plutocratic countries” that are “low-representation presidential democracies” and, on the other hand, “more egalitarian countries” that are “parliamentary democracies, etc.” The challenge is that the US, fitting the first description, has dominated scientific research since the European research communities were devastated during World War II. But I honestly don’t know what social science research, for example, has been done in Scandinavian countries and how much of it has been published in English so as to be part of English scientific debate.

    That has been the problem with the Eastern research that challenges many Western assumptions and conclusions, as most of that Eastern research has never been translated into English or any of the other Western languages. This has been a major issue in nutrition studies where most Western research often correlates greater meat intake to lower health outcomes and yet where most Eastern research shows the complete opposite correlation. Which is true? We don’t entirely know because the healthy user effect is different. Westerners associate ill health with meat and so generally healthy people eat less meat, but Easterners associate good health with meat and so generally healthy people eat more meat. So, it may or may not have anything to do with meat at all.

    Today is the first time I’ve come across your writings and this is the first piece I’ve read by you; or at least I don’t recall your name offhand. Then again, I’ve read so much over the years and my memory is far from perfect. But here I am now and I enjoyed what I came across, if there might be some minor differences of emphasis or interpretation. I noticed you don’t have any newer writings here or over at Medium. Do you plan on getting back to posting pieces on the internet? Until then, I’d be glad to check out your book. Writing a book is no small feat. I just sent you an email and so I look forward to getting a review copy. When do you plan on getting it published?

    • My mistake. I see that it is already published. Are you still editing it for a newer edition? Or is this the final edition? Is the review copy the same as the published version available on Amazon?

    • Thanks! I saw your Blue Zone post, it was very well-researched and counterintuitive (for Westerners). I personally wonder if the main benefit from a plant-based diet is lower caloric intake. At the risk of sounding West-biased, I wonder if the Eastern meat-based view is due to their having had less time to get out of food scarcity. Meat is so wonderfully calorically dense, and delicious too. I gave it up reluctantly, more for ethical and environmental reasons than for health (though that too) and have not given up fish. It is so hard to know facts still in nutrition, and easy to overclaim, as you point out so well.

      Yes, I am still editing my book for newer editions. And Book 2 of the series is not yet published (perhaps late this year). One nice thing about Amazon’s KDP software is that it is so easy to publish corrected editions. I put a little version number on the copyright page. The version there is v1.03 now (1.04 is on my computer, waiting for sufficient changes to get published).

      I never expect any kind of review or feedback, but any feedback, particularly from careful thinkers like yourself, is always appreciated. Thanks again for the dialog Ben!

      • That Blue Zones post is one of my doozies. Every now and then, something gets caught in my craw and I can’t let it go until I’ve researched it to death. When I go into research mode, I scour every resource I can find, sometimes over a period of months. As for that particular post, even though I wrote it sometime ago, I was still recently working on it and adding to it.

        This obsessive-compulsion is practically a mental illness. But, for whatever it’s worth, it does occasionally lead me to write interesting or otherwise worthy pieces. That post is probably the most detailed and extensive post anyone has ever written on the topic. I feel this is safe to say because, over a number of years, I’ve looked at every piece of writing I could find on Blue Zones.

        It is one of my more popular posts. It has been referenced numerous times in various writings by others and in discussion threads around the world wide web. Some of my other massive posts get far less attention and interest, and that is completely understandable. Not everyone appreciates exhaustive research about certain topics.

        For some of those posts, even I think the topic is a bit boring, despite something about it capturing my curiosity. The reason my Blue Zones post is likely the most thorough example of its kind is because no one else would care to commit so much time and energy into writing something like it. I can’t explain why I spend all that effort on such things.

        To respond to your thoughts, there are surely many factors involved. A plant-based diet can be low-calorie, but then again so can an animal-based diet. People tend to not overeat either with a low-fat, high-carb diet or with a low-carb, high-fat diet. But, anyway, research indicates that low-calorie has no health benefit when it involves eating all day.

        The only life extension is seen when the calories are limited to a single meal, which implies the causal factor is fasting, not necessarily having to do with calorie restriction itself. What fasting does is promote ketosis, autophagy, stem cell release, AMPK/mTOR regulation, anti-inflammation, etc. Interestingly, very low-carb diets also accomplish the same ends, as does exercise to some extent.

        Low-carb diets, of course, could be either plant-based or animal-based. I’m not sure those are a useful way of thinking. Sure, a vegan or near-vegan diet could be fairly called plant-based. But consider the fact that all essential and conditionally essential nutrients can be found in animal foods, something that is not true of plant foods even as plant foods have other potentially beneficial non-essential nutrients.

        As distinct from vegans and near-vegans, many vegetarians and pescatarians are getting most of their essential and conditionally essential nutrients from animal foods: eggs, dairy, and/or fish. Those animal foods are not only nutrient-dense but also calorie-dense. So, people on those diets might be getting the majority of their calories from animal foods as well, in spite of much or most of the bulk coming from plant starches and carbs.

        This could be true as well of many of the supposed plant-based Blue Zones. The Okinawans did eat more pork before the pig population was wiped out during World War II. But they did always have a more constrained diet that was calorie restricted and probably tended toward OMAD (one-meal-a-day) or else with regular fasting, both of which are common in traditional societies.

        The thing is that it’s not necessarily how much meat a society gets. The breed of pig the Okinawans have been raising for longer than recorded history is one that is among the most fat-producing. So, even as the Okinawans tended to eat smaller amounts of meat, they used all of that excess lard for cooking everything. And keep in mind that nutrients in animal foods are concentrated in the fat.

        A similar situation applies to pescatarians who focus on fatty cold water fish like salmon. Even if they don’t eat fish every day, they are getting tremendous nutrient-density from the fish fat when they do eat it. I have an aunt who identifies as a vegan, even though she regularly eats fatty fish because her doctor recommended it. Surveys of vegans and vegetarians show that it is common for many to occasionally cheat by eating animal foods. That intake of nutrient-density, albeit occasional, could totally skew the health results.

        On a personal note, I’m an ethical and environmental left-liberal meat-eater. That is why I oppose factory farming and support grassfed. I did go vegetarian for about a year when I was younger and my brothers have been vegetarian for a really long time. My nieces and nephews have all been raised vegetarian. So, I have nothing against it, particularly for ethical reasons as is the case for my brothers.

        I’ll try to find the time to read more of your writings. But I make no promises. I’ve learned to be careful about making promises. I have a liberal mind of high openness and low conscientiousness. That means I lack focus and am easily distracted. My mind wanders all over the place, which is why I can write posts of such diverse topics.

        That said, I really am interested to learn more about your views and so hopefully my curiosity will pull me in. And when my curiosity is intrigued, I’m almost guaranteed to give feedback, whether the other person wants it or not. So, we’ll see how that works out. The mind of a moody liberal like me is a mysterious thing.

      • We’ve been having two corresponding discussions going, as related to ideology, cognitive ability, and health. Besides at this post, many similar thoughts have been put in comments at another post of yours. Some of what I’ll say here is also a continuation of what I was writing there as well. This comment will be a merging of the two discussions.

        Before I get back to the ideological issue, let me add to my comments on diet and nutrition. The healthy user effect basically means that people who eat what they are told is healthy (usually those high in conscientiousness, by the way) also tend to do other things they are told to be healthy, whether or not it’s true that it’s healthier. Obviously, eating more meat can’t be more healthy in one place and less healthy in another, unless there is some strange cumulative effect of multiple factors within divergent cultural environments.

        That confusion aside, whether they are eating more meat in Asia or less meat in the West, they also will be more likely to take supplements, exercise, not smoke and drink, regularly go to the doctor, etc. Specifically, in terms of diet, a big factor is that they’ll eat less industrially grown and processed junk food in general, which would likely decrease their intake of refined sugar, refined flour, seed oils, food additives, agrochemicals, etc.

        The healthy user effect is further confounded by socioeconomic status. Doing all of those healthy things is more affordable and accessible to the wealthier. Even simple things like having access to clean water, clean air, green spaces, recreation centers, gyms, etc are often simply not part of the lived reality for the poor. Many Americans, from poor to upper working class, don’t always get regular doctors visits and needed medical treatments because healthcare has become so expensive.

        That is the problem of including the Linda Loma community as part of the Blue Zones data. That Seventh Day Adventist community is highly unusual in its tight-knit religious community that also is wealthier and more well educated. To do a fair comparison, some have looked to nearby Mormon communities of equal religiosity, socioeconomic status, and emphasis of healthy living. Those meat-eating Mormons are as healthy as the Adventists.

        So, there is no reason to think it has anything to do with the meat. This is emphasized by all of the research, particularly in the East but increasingly in the West, that shows better health outcomes with meat consumption, something I covered in another post:

        Research On Meat And Health

        Now, to put this into the larger context, sickness of any sort saps one’s reserve of nutrients, as the body needs more nutrients for healing and for dealing with stress, and also in the case of parasites because something is removing nutrients that otherwise would be available to the body. So, the level of health is directly related to physical development and hence neurocognitive development or else related to its being stunted.

        This touches upon the issue of the reactionary mind, as an extreme expression of traumatizing stress that causes maldevelopment, entrenchment, and rigidification of the conservative-minded threat response, as can be measured in altered cognitive ability and brain structure. To add to these issues, the modern world is a mix of areas of improving health and other areas of worsening health, the cause of the simultaneous increase of liberalism and increase of the reactionary mind.

        I’ve had a theory I’ve been considering in recent years. In the early 1900s, Weston A. Price studied the diets and nutrition of healthy traditional populations, from rural European farmers to African hunter-gatherers. He observed that intake of nutrient-dense animal foods (e.g., grassfed butter) was correlated to not only physical health but also what he called moral health, the latter referring to pro-social behavior (happiness, friendliness, compassion, generosity, helpfulness, etc). In support of this link, such pro-social behavior has been observed by anthropologists, linguists, etc among diverse traditional populations (e.g., Daniel Everett on the Piraha).

        This observation was made in spite of Price’s having hoped to find a healthy vegetarian population, something he was never able to discover in all of his travels. Of course, this was about a century ago and so prior to fortified foods and supplements. One has to wonder if vegetarian populations like the Adventists today would be far less healthy if they had no access to modern industrial nutrition that doesn’t naturally come from whole foods. Is a diet really healthy when it is dependent on non-food sources of nutrients? If so, why not eat no food at all (i.e., a breatharian diet) and just take supplements?

        That is a bit of a philosophical thought, since the fact is that we do now have supplements and fortified foods. The reason we have them is because of all of the nutritional deficiencies that arose over recent centuries with increased agricultural and industrial foods, as wild-caught and gathered foods disappeared from the diet, and hence as animal-based nutrient-density declined. For example, Americans today get far less animal fat than at any prior point in American history, particularly since seed oil became the main source of fatty acids in the diet during the 1930s.

        The problem with fortified foods and supplements is that they only offset the worst nutritional deficiencies. Whole foods contain a wide array of and complex relationship between nutrients and their co-factors in specific amounts and ratios that is nearly impossible to duplicate artificially. Many of the potential nutrients in foods have barely been researched or haven’t been researched at all. Our knowledge is still lacking and so nothing can replace animal-based nutrient-density, specifically as part of a traditional nose-to-tail diet.

        This relates to why, even when looking at wealthier WEIRD populations with healthcare, so many people in the modern world show obvious signs of stunted and malformed bone structure: narrow faces, crowded teeth, underbites, overbites, crooked features, thin bones, pigeon-toed, flat feet, women with narrow hips, men with narrow shoulders, etc. That is what Price noted earlier last century. It would be even more noticeable now, if not for orthodontics that ‘corrects’ for (i.e., hides) these developmental problems.

        These are just the outward signs. When there are problems with bone development, one can guarantee there are also problems with other areas of physical development. This is likely the causal or contributing factor to the past generations or centuries of increased rates of cancer, metabolic diseases, autoimmune disorders, Alzheimer’s, mood disorders, schizophrenia, psychosis, autism, etc. Even as certain areas of neurocognitive development have improved, there is obviously factors having a major detrimental impact on the brain, gut-brain axis, nervous system, and hormonal system.

        This makes for a strange time to be alive. So much is getting better while, at the same time, so much is getting worse. Among large swaths of the population, we are still struggling with basic issues of malnourishment, lead toxicity, and much else. Now imagine, if the Flynn effect and moral Flynn effect can have such benefits despite all that is going against it, what might humanity be capable of if we ever succeeded in increasing public health to a high level, not just for the wealthier but also for the poor, not just for advanced countries but for all countries?

        Public health is a political issue. But it’s also a neurocognitive issue, which in turn effects population-wide ideological mindsets. For these reasons, this area has been an ideological battlefield. On an intuitive level, one suspects that the reactionary right, particularly among Double Highs (high RWA, high SDO), understands that improving public health and improving public education is a direct attack on conservative-mindedness (e.g., the Milwaukee sewer socialists who governed for a half century were the first to guarantee clean water for everyone, including the poor).

        This is why the reactionary right politically opposes public health and public education. They’d rather maintain dominance, through traumatizing and sickening high inequality, than have a well-functioning and well-adjusted society where they are out of power. Fortunately, the progress we’ve experienced from health and neurocognitive improvements has largely been a side effect of larger changes happening. In the long run, it might be irrelevant who supports or opposes these changes because they have become built into the necessary infrastructure of maintaining a modern society.

        Earlier last century, conservatives supported public education. They didn’t do so in order to increase the average IQ, cognitive ability, and liberal-mindedness. Their purpose, instead, was to enforce social control and cultural assimilation of ethnic immigrants, racial minorities, non-Protestants, and poor whites. The liberalization of society was an unintended side effect and now conservatives have come to fear education as a force that liberalizes and liberates the mind, but it’s largely too late.

        We are never going to undo that change, at least not without complete authoritarian takeover or societal collapse. We aren’t likely to ever go back to a society where most people are uneducated and illiterate. Instead, education and literacy rates continue to rise, such that the present young generation will be the first to be majority college-educated; and, as it goes, conservatives complain about this. Public health will also continue to improve. As we speak, Congress is funding the removal of lead pipes as part of the infrastructure bill, the first time Congress has ever taken seriously this issue.

        Lead toxicity might be the single greatest harm to physical and mental health among in many poor communities. Consider that a number of the cases of blacks killed by police involved blacks who had high lead toxicity rates, which not only lowers IQ for it also alters behavior with increased aggression and decreased impulse control, not to mention contributing to numerous diseases. The police in those poor communities also probably have higher lead toxicity rates.

        Imagine what American society might be like when lead toxicity becomes a thing of the past. That is one way the moral Flynn effect is explained, since decreasing lead toxicity decreases violent crime while increasing IQ, as has been shown in numerous studies. The disparities in lead toxicity is merely one single issue among many within disparities of health. And all of that is is just one area of even greater disparities of wealth, privilege, power, representation, resources, opportunities, and on and on.

        Besides, research shows that even the wealthy are worse off in a high inequality society, to the extent of experiencing higher rates of addiction, alcoholism, violent crime, and such. Everyone becomes stressed out and sickly. In The Broken Ladder, Keith Payne points out that high inequality mimics poverty, even for those who aren’t poor. So, as public health is a political issue, high inequality is a public health issue. High inequality societies have higher rates of nearly every physical and mental illness.

        These various factors could go a long way in explaining why the Scandinavian social democracies are so healthy and happy, why they have such strong cultures of trust. They have very low inequality and massive investments in every major area of public good with particular emphasis on public health and public education. Some of them are also leading the way in terms of diet and nutrition. Switzerland is the first country in the world with government food guidelines promoting low-carb, high-fat diets as treatment for various health conditions. If we are lucky, we will soon be following such examples.

      • Well said. We call Nordic democracies “sentinel countries” in our futurist communities. They have gotten to futures that America will eventually choose, for all the reasons you outline here.

      • Have you read Keith Payne’s book? That is another one I enjoyed. The issue of inequality really is the other side of public health. There is nothing in society that those two combined do not effect.

        In his book, there was a fascinating example of how high inequality mimics poverty. A study was done on airplanes where passengers have to pass through first class and airplanes where they don’t.

        What makes this a useful study is that probably none of the passengers were poor, otherwise they couldn’t afford to buy a plane ticket. And the setup of entering through first class shoves into people’s faces the social reality of the socioeconomic divide.

        The results were that everyone in that scenario, unlike the other situation, were more aggressive, disruptive, and prone to getting into fights. It’s the same kind of stress-induced conflict one sees in poor communities.

        Inequality Means No Center to Moderate Toward

      • I do like the idea of “sentinel countries”. That is a good term to describe the Nordic social democracies with elements of democratic socialism (e.g., government-run natural resource companies to fund public infrastructure and services).

        By the way, the American general public is closer to the values of those “sentinel countries,” despite the American ruling elite being in opposition. As progress is likely to happen from unintended side effects, the motivating force for that progress is likely to emerge from the bottom up.

        There is what I call the ‘Ferengi’ demographic of the reactionary right (loyal Fox News viewers, white Evangelicals, and partisan Republicans). They are given an outsized voice in corporate media and corporatocratic politics, but in reality they are a fairly small minority.

        Even the average conservative is much further left than is typically acknowledged. On some issues, a significant percentage of conservatives are to the left of the DNC elite. Certainly, the silenced and suppressed moral majority is quite far left.

        In the US, we have a liberal-minded and socially democratic public with a Double High ruling elite. This is why the ruling elite feel the necessity to maintain a banana republic that creates the appearance of democracy. It’s also why the ruling elite must hide how bad inequality has become.

        So, we Americans already have a social democracy in the public imagination and in social values. Now it’s just a matter of the social, political, and economic institutions catching up. The public demand will only get stronger and that will eventually lead to political will.

        American Leftist Supermajority

  7. Wonderful! Thanks for the background on that great post. It really does show how easy it is to overclaim, and fall into confirmation bias.
    I wouldn’t call what you did OCD, just commitment to stewarding information for others. I think you would greatly enjoy Alex Wright’s Glut: Mastering Information through the Ages, 2008. It honors the information stewards across the centuries, and has some great network theory insights as well.

    We need people like you to highlight the complexities of a topic, and show how much uncertainty still remains.

    • It isn’t clear that is an overall good review of Henrich’s book, as he gets some things obviously wrong. He writes that, “He concludes that individuals in Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic,( i.e. WEIRD) societies are morally and cognitively superior. Isn’t classifying a country by attributes of its people , as Henrich does, rather than by class and education and even personality, simplistic.? Is there a typical Indian or a typical (WEIRD) Englishman ( I know of many who are not!) ? Swedes (traditionally conformist), Italians, Irish, Americans, Australians (which Australians, only European ones?) are all apparently WEIRDS!”

      That isn’t really the argument made. No entire national population is completely WEIRD. A main point is that the social science research we’ve done has been mostly done on the WEIRDest subjects: white, middle class college students. So, it can’t be generalized as a racialized notion of ethnonationalist personality. That makes me wonder if that reviewer only skimmed the book to find the parts he disagreed with or thought he disagreed with. Henrich never argued against the fact that, “Western Europe had had a long history before the Christians came,” which would be a bizarre argument to make.

      Nor did he argue against some ancient civilizations like the Romans being advanced. But the reality is literacy was not widespread in the Roman Empire with the Western provinces have a literacy rate that may never have risen above 5% and even lower for those who could write. Only about 3% had the writing capacity that most modern people take for granted, and interestingly the Roman elite didn’t write much as they had others do it for them, as writing was considered a lowly and laborious task. The Roman elite could become famous as orators but never as writers.

      Most of the famous Roman works were dictated to slaves who wrote them down. Ancient Roman sculpture, prior to Christianity, rarely shows the upper classes in the act of writing. Even the meager level of Roman literacy dropped again with the fall of the Western Roman Empire. And the elite prejudice against writing persisted into the Middle Ages. Compare that to the Netherlands in 1750 that had a literacy rate of 80%. It wasn’t until the 1800s that reading and writing were taught together. The Protestant Reformation revolutionized the Western world in promoting mass literacy.

      Also, Henrich never states all of Europe was Christianized at the same time. But, by the Protestant Reformation, there was only small pockets of paganism remaining. The reviewer’s grasp of Henrich’s argument is even more vague. Consider the theory of marriage laws and the rise of individuality, that territory has been covered by other serious scholars. Frances Fukuyama, in The Origins of Political Order, details the history of increasingly strict marriage laws over the centuries. The anthropologist Jack Goody earlier wrote about this, in The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe. Goody observed that cousin marriages were common among the Romans.

      The appearance of individualism, unsurprisingly, happened simultaneously with the breakdown of kinship networks, along with the coinciding prioritization of nuclear families. Compare that to the early Roman Empire where the modern sense of individuality was barely even a concept, such that people did almost everything together. Ancient Romans went to work, the gym, the doctor, etc as part of groups, often kin. As for Henrich’s version of this argument, he has written about it with other scholars as co-authors: Jonathan F. Schulz (economic history), Duman Bahrani-Rad (development economics), and Jonathan P. Beauchamp (genoeconomics, economic behavaior).

      Henrich never argues these changes happened all at once. So, why is the reviewer falsely claiming this? The WEIRDing of Western populations has been a slow and uneven process. It took many centuries for the marriage laws to spread both in practice and culture. Even today, cousin marriages are still allowed in some parts of the West, including certain states in the US. But the point is those shrinking non-WEIRD sub-populations are rarely the subjects of scientific research. There is something unique about highly literate populations that are immersed in literary culture. The historical angle is only one part of Henrich’s argument, as he goes into other areas of research such as neurocognition where he discusses such things as changes to brain structure from reading.

      • Excellent. Thanks for defending his work and scholarship so well. I’ve ordered the book. I do recommend Bregman’s Humankind. He’s quite good at puncturing myths about the dark side of human nature. Among other insights, he makes a good case that smaller, more primitive tribes weren’t more violent on average, as Pinker claimed. Rather there is a U-curve (adaptation curve) where the emergence of large scale empires made things more violent and coercive, then finally we started to climb the other side of the U with literate democratic societies.

      • I’m sure Bregman’s book would be worthy. And I do enjoy a book that punctures myths about human nature. The insight you mention is in line with my own thinking.

        Although I understand the attraction of Whiggish histories, I also know enough to realize there is a dark past to those claiming progressive superiority to supposed primitive people. About the specific issue of violence rates, I analyzed that in a post some years ago.

        Percentages of Suffering and Death

        The U-curve sounds similar to that of health outcomes. Yes, modern humans are healthier than premodern agricultural and horticultural populations.

        But, in many ways, still surviving, if stressed, hunter-gatherers are healthier than industrialized populations. The only area that we are physically superior is in having antibiotics to treat infectious diseases.

        Modern humans are now beginning to catch up to the stature of paleolithic humans that declined with the agricultural revolution. We still have not yet regained brain size. And I’m unconvinced that it’s necessarily a result of self-domestication, as opposed to continued stunting.

        Even hunter-gatherers today aren’t the equal of paleolithic humans. Nothing ever was able to replace the nutrient-density of blubbery megafauna after they died off. Humans were forced to turn to less fatty animals. It’s probably no accident that agriculture soon after developed.

        It’s intriguing to consider that there might be a correlation between a U-curve of health and a U-curve of violence. That would support my theory of moral health. It might imply that there is a greater equivalent to a moral Flynn effect of a U-curve across millennia, involving the shrinking of the human brain and a slow reversal toward a larger brain again.

        We are only now coming close to a time when it might be possible, in the near future, to regain the nutrient-density of the paleolithic and apply it to all people. Only then will we find out what full and optimal brain and skull development looks like within more normal evolutionary conditions, as existed for the earliest hundreds of millennia of the human species.

        That would settle the debate between the competing theories of developmental stunting and self-domestication. But that might be another few generations before we could get to the point of seeing the results.

    • I wanted to add a quick comment. Thanks for the book recommendation. I’m always on the lookout for good reading material. But I must admit that my focus may be shifting away from nonfiction. I’ve written so many well-researched posts like the Blue Zones one. I’ve been losing confidence in what immediate impact they can have on the larger society, not that having an influence in indirect ways is insignificant over the long run.

      Still, as I speculate above, my suspicion is that progress will happen less as a planned societal project and more as a slow accumulation of unintended side effects. For all my love of liberal-minded cognitive abilities, our society is not quite there yet. As a society, we will more likely understand what all of this has meant in hindsight generations down the line. Even something as simple as the info on Blue Zones will likely take some decades to have greater impact. All one can do is throw it out there and release it, hoping it memetically catches on.

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