20211225 – Most Things Fail
The author formulated the main idea of this book as consisting of three themes:” The main theme of this book is to develop a general explanation of the pervasive nature of failure in the world of human societies and economies. Though there are striking parallels between the social and economic world and the world of biology there is, however, a fundamental difference between the two: the process of evolution in biological species cannot be planned. Species cannot act with the intent of increasing their fitness to survive. In contrast, in human society, individuals, firms and governments all strive consciously to devise successful strategies for survival. They adapt these strategies over time and alter their plans as circumstances change. Yet, despite this apparent contrast, eventually, in both biological evolution and human social and economic activity, failure strikes.
A second theme of this book is to understand this seeming paradox. How can it be that not just failure, but the patterns of failure, are so similar in biology and human organization when there is such a sharp contrast between the abilities to act with the conscious intent of improving one’s prospects for survival?
The third theme, developed in particular towards the end of the book, is that failure can be highly beneficial. In the real world in which strategies evolve and which is itself the outcome of a dynamic process of change, failure at the level of the individual component part can, paradoxically, enhance the fitness of the system as a whole.”
After stating his opinion about the general inevitability of failure, the author refers to two examples of consistent long-term failure: racism and poverty. He then refers to Evolution that clearly demonstrates the necessity of failure for development. Finally, the author presents key themes of this book and stresses that his primary method is comparing the theory with evidence, unlike many other works in social sciences and economics that avoid such comparison, often substituting it with complex mathematical models.
1 The Edwardian Explosion
Here the author uses the analogy of the Cambrian explosion from evolutionary biology to characterize the economic explosion in England in the late XIXth century. It featured outside investors financing the new venture based on limited liability protecting them. The author then discusses the improvement in living standards that resulted from the rapid economic growth. However, this development’s outcome also included an increase in scale of business enterprises and the creation of monopolies. From this, the author moves to discuss multiple business failures and provides a nice table:
2 A Formula for Failure
Here the author expands the discussion to the search for reasons for failures after noting that the economic profession generally tends to ignore failures even though it is the fate of 10% of all businesses every year. The economic methodology is mainly directed to the search of market equilibrium, and the author discusses how little this approach helps explain real-world economic processes. The special attention the author allocates to the failure to properly analyze risk vs. uncertainty:” Risk refers to situations in which the outcome cannot be known with certainty, but the probability of any given outcome is understood perfectly. A simple example would be a toss of a fair coin. There is a fifty– fifty chance of it being either heads or tails. If we are gambling on the next toss being heads, there is a risk that we will lose our money if it turns out to be tails. But we know precisely what the chances are. Uncertainty, in its strict sense, refers to situations in which the probability of the various outcomes is itself unknown.” The author also uses multiple examples of real-life events and studies demonstrating a considerable difference between economic decision-making as presented in theory and as real live decision makers actually do it. From this, the author makes a pretty reasonable inference:” The capacity of firms to deal with market situations in a cognitive sense, their capacity to process information and turn it into knowledge, is small compared to the sheer scale of the problems which confront them. Companies can never deal completely with the complexity of the real world. The uncertainty that shrouds the future is not so much a veil as an iron curtain. In the current state of scientific knowledge, it cannot be penetrated. There is ample opportunity at any point in time for any firm, no matter how large, to fail.”
3 Up a Bit, Then Down a Bit
The author begins this chapter by briefly recounting the story of the increase of governments expenses and overall influence on the economy. Then, he specifically looks at the impact of this increase on the unemployment data and finds that it was not that significant:” If we compare the period from 1946 to the present day with the period 1870–1938, we see that, on average, as a proportion of the economy as a whole, the public sector was well over twice as large. Yet the average unemployment rate from 1946 has been no less than 4.5 per cent. In other words, only very marginally lower than in the period 1870–1938, despite the massive rise in the importance of the public sector in the economy. And although the highest rate in any single year, at 11 per cent, was less than the 14 per cent of the 1930s, unemployment never fell below 1 per cent in the entire period since the Second World War.” After that, the author looks at social mobility and Gini coefficients within countries and between countries:
At the end of this chapter author once again refer to a critical intellectual construct of economics: general-equilibrium theory and stresses how inconsistent it is with real-life developments. He makes this statement:” In order to control a system – any system, whether an economy, a biological system or a machine – we need to be able to do two things: first, make forecasts which are reasonably accurate in a systematic way over time; and second, understand with reasonable accuracy the effect of changes in policy on the system one is trying to control.” And, since the only thing really proved about economic forecasts is their persistent failure, he concludes:” It may seem implausible that economic systems behave as if they were almost random. However, this near-random quality does not mean in any way that the individual components of an economy – people, firms, governments – take decisions at random. On the contrary, they act with purpose and intent. But the consequences of these millions upon millions of individual decisions, interacting with each other all the time, lead to an overall outcome, for total output (GDP), say, that appears as if it were close to being random. The sheer dimensions of the problem are simply too great for the system to be understood properly. There are simply too many factors that determine the outcome, and whose relative importance alters over time, for the complete picture ever to be grasped.”4 Making Sense of Segregation
This chapter starts with reference to Marx and Engels and their indirect responsibility for innumerable crimes committed in the name of communism. Then, he discusses the complete failure of Marxism as a politico-economic theory. From this point, the author discusses various forms of segregation, both geographical and housing, between groups of people along class or religious or racial lines. Next, he discusses the persistence of such segregation despite the multitude of efforts by the government to promote integration. Finally, the author discusses the reasons and process of segregation, including the fascinating example of algorithmically generated segregation based on a very simple rule of preferences:
5 Playing by the Rules
This chapter begins with reference to Alfred Marshall, Francis Edgeworth and their debate whether the market could be analyzed and understood based on supply/demand equilibrium or it is just too complex and unpredictable to obtain any meaningful understanding and correspondingly correct forecast. The author then discusses the general development of economic theory and the addition of the game theory and later psychology to the mix. At the end of the chapter, the author presents his conclusion:” A key paradox begins to emerge from all this. Humans, whether acting as individuals or making collective decisions in companies or governments, behave with purpose. They take decisions with the aim of achieving specific, desired outcomes. Yet our view of the world which is emerging is one in which it is either very difficult or even impossible to predict the consequences of decisions in any meaningful sense. We may intend to achieve a particular outcome, but the complexity of the world, even in apparently simple situations, appears to be so great that it is not within our power to ordain the future.”
6 A Game of Chess
This chapter discusses the incompleteness of information available to acting agents, contrasting it with complete information available to chess players. He begins with another paradox:” Humans can take decisions with intent, acting with the purpose of achieving specific targets. As we noted in the Introduction, this ability to act with intent is sharply different from the process of biological evolution, which takes place at random. Yet both cases, whether human strategy or the evolution of species, are characterized by widespread failure. The human ability to act with purpose and intent seems not to imply in any way that the actual outcome will be the desired one.”
The author then proceeds to discuss the contemporary economic theory that moved beyond the notion of full informed agents making perfect choices based on supply and demand to the concepts of partially or even wholly misinformed agents acting not only based on external data but also based on their internal psychological processes. However, even for chess, in which the quality of the game improved over time, the author suggests limitations of improvements due to the game’s complexity. As to the game of life, which is infinitely more complex than chess:” Individuals, firms, governments, households may lack access to complete information. Even more importantly, they do not have the cognitive ability to process it in a way which finds the single, optimal choice. Particularly when confronted with decisions that have consequences in the future, the problem of finding the ‘best’ move, the best strategy, is simply too hard. Instead, agents look for reasonably good strategies which avoid obvious loss, and they find it very difficult to learn better strategies. Armed with this view of the world, we return to the problem of failure and extinction.”
7 ‘The Best-Laid Schemes …’
Here the author expands the chess analogy further, noting that it is not only incomplete information but also the character of the rules of the game that make a difference. In real life, rules and goals are dynamic and constantly change, unlike static and well-known rules of chess. The author provides some examples and discusses in detail Harold Hotelling’s beach and ice cream model that demonstrates an exponential increase in complexity with any change in assumptions that make the model more realistic. He makes the point that this complexity makes a complete solution impossible. However, at the same time, he demonstrates that a simple strategy could produce “good enough” results.
8 Doves and Hawks
The author discusses another model in this chapter: Armen Alchian’s “Dove and Hawks”. He demonstrates how volatility is embedded in complex biological systems, sometimes leading to cyclical changes when some parameter, such as the ratio of lynx to hares, moves periodically from one extreme to another. The author also discusses Vito Volterra’s work:” A Mathematical Theory of the Struggle for Life, ” describing dynamic equilibrium between species. Finally, the author also describes some relevant samples of English literature.
9 Patterns in the Dark
Here, the author continues juxtaposing biology, Darwin’s evolution and economy, and Adam Smith’s capitalism. He describes the process of evolution and stresses that the pace of evolution is variable, referring to the “Cambrian explosion”. Moreover, the research shows that there is some multi-million years cycle of extinction with the interdependency of size and frequency:
The author then sets up the framework for moving to economics in the next chapter:” Excitingly, power law, or very near power law, relationships have been identified very recently in many areas of economic activity. Perhaps most exciting of all, the relationship that describes the pattern of extinctions amongst firms appears to be virtually identical to that which describes biological extinctions. For certain types of system, as diverse as those in which biological species and modern firms flourish and die, we may have the first inklings of a general theory not of evolution but of extinction.”
10 The Powers that Be
The author begins this chapter with the statement that describes biological processes fully apply to economics with:” the size distribution of the largest American companies was well described by a power law, a finding subsequently generalized across all US firms”. The author then discusses the relation between the size of cause and scale of the event:” Most of the time, small events, small shocks to the system, will only have small impacts, and large shocks will usually have big consequences. But the fact that we observe power-law behavior in a system tells us that the system operates in ways that mean that these relationships do not always hold. Sometimes, a very small event can have profound consequences, and occasionally a big shock can be contained and be of little import.” He also presents some analysis of types of networks and resulting variance in their behavior, illustrating all this by the story of financial debacle such as LTCM. Finally, the author also provides an extinction graph for both economic and biological species:
11 Take Your Pick?
In this chapter, the author reviews two theoretical approaches to the problem of extinction. One approach assigns cause to external shocks, while the other to the internal development of the system. The author uses business cycles as an example when one approach points to an external event such as a war that violates the equilibrium of the economic system. At the same time, another looks for internal causes such as money supply than misallocation of resources, eventually leading to a crash.
The author discusses Mark Newman’s exogenous model of extinctions and Richard Sole and S. Manrubia’s endogenous model. Interestingly enough, both models: “capable of generating results that are compatible with the key empirical evidence on extinction in the biological fossil record.”
12 Resolving the Dilemma
The author begins here by noting that there are clear cases of purely exogenous or endogenous causes and then discusses various parameters of a system that sometimes provide for the survival of the strong shocks but sometimes lead to extinction from the much smaller ones. The conclusion the author presents is this:” In the biological world, both the exogenous and endogenous extinction models in their pure form can account for the key patterns observed in the extinction of species, but the strictly endogenous model, in which firms are connected to each other and have impacts on each other’s fitness, translates far better into socio-economic systems than does the strictly exogenous one.
However, as we have noted several times, in the human world of social and economic organization, in practice failure and extinction almost certainly arise from a combination of endogenous and exogenous factors, of external shocks and the purely internal interactions of the component parts of the system. The internal network of connections and how it evolves over time are the most important causes of extinctions, but external shocks will often play a role as well. We now explore the implications of making the model even more realistic by introducing external shocks into the self-generating explanation of extinction.”
13 Why Things Fail
Here the author discusses the results of testing models in real-life that demonstrate their very limited usability. An example he looks at in detail is the Philips Curve. However, the author also stresses that: “A great advantage of a theoretical model is that we can create artificial worlds. In other words, we can change the rules of behavior and see what happens.”
The author concludes this chapter with clear inference:” To repeat a key phrase which needs to be hard-wired into the brain of every decision-maker, whether in the public or private sector, intent is not the same as outcome. Humans, whether acting as individuals or in a collective fashion in a firm or government, face massive inherent uncertainty about the effect of their actions. Whether it is the great characters of tragedy or giant corporations such as Microsoft, the future remains covered in a deep veil to all. Species, people, firms, governments are all complex entities that must survive in dynamic environments which evolve over time. Their ability to understand such environments is inherently limited.
These limits are a fundamental feature of the systems we have discussed, whether biological or whether in the realm of human social and economic organization, in which the individual agents are connected through networks which evolve over time. These limits can no more be overcome by smarter analysis than we are able to break binding physical constraints, such as our inability to travel faster than the speed of light. This is why things fail.
14 What Is to Be Done?
The author begins this chapter by stating that:” Yet humanity is not completely powerless in the face of the Iron Law of Failure. There are positive attitudes, positive steps that policy-makers, in both the public and private domains, can take. Moreover, failure at the individual level can paradoxically be beneficial for the health of the system as a whole.” He then proceeds by discussing works of Schumpeter and Hayek, the former advocating some degree of monopoly as preferable to pure competition, while the latter theoretically demonstrated that market-based economies are superior to planned ones due to superiority of distributed specific knowledge processing over-concentrated and therefore necessarily simplified knowledge processing. The author then uses examples with civil aviation industries and practically unregulated money supply in the USA until the early XX century that successfully supported a colossal expansion of the American economy for more than a century. The author then looks at the relation between extinction fitness of agents and the system as a whole, demonstrating its inverse relationship in the model:
After that, the author reviews and laments the current policies of big governments that support various agents for political reasons, consequently negatively impacting the system’s overall fitness. However, the author also stresses that:” But it is not the size of the state as such which has brought this about. Different western countries have experienced different sizes of state intervention in the economy, and there is no obvious relationship between this and economic performance. And, as we have seen, the period in which the state has seen a massive increase in its importance in western society has also been the period in which most countries moved away from rather than towards the outcomes that the social democratic model promised. Unemployment is up. Crime has increased. Income inequality has widened. And social mobility has fallen.”
In the end, the author provides his solution to the problem of the unpredictability of results and inevitable failures, which is: “‘Innovate, innovate!’ – that is the guiding principle which companies have used to try to overcome the inherent and pervasive uncertainty which surrounds all their decisions. It is the best strategy for individual survival, and it is a strategy from which we all, as consumers and citizens, have benefited immensely.”
MY TAKE ON IT:
My views are in complete agreement with the main positions of the author of this book: the future is unpredictable, and all that one can do is to try developing maximum fitness and flexibility to avoid extinction due to the wider range of shocks, endogenous or exogenous. I think it is applicable for all levels, from individuals to businesses of all sizes to the states and nations. I believe insufficiently highlighted is the tradeoff between redundancy and efficiency, necessitated by all this. The improvement in extinction fitness requires investment in a broader range of functionality that would necessarily decrease efficiency. The only way such increase is possible is if decision makers’ well-being strongly depended on the consequences of these decisions because otherwise, they would always prefer current efficiency. The lack of solid feedback for government or big business bureaucracy is probably the most crucial reason for societal failures at all levels.
A good example would be the decision of American airlines to avoid implementing security measures similar to Israeli airlines before 9/11 because of their cost, which was just a few thousand dollars. The following disaster had little impact on the lives of either airline’s management or government bureaucrats “responsible” for security while costing a lot in lives and treasure for people. If it were a small private business, its owners would be out of business and probably wholly wiped out by lawsuits forcing all others to include effective security measures as a necessary cost of doing business. As it is, the government implemented costly and ineffective bureaucracy of TSA, which demonstrated by such reports:” Federal agents posed as passengers and attempted to sneak fake guns and explosives onto flights. The results showed they were successful in getting past security 95 percent of the time. https://edition.cnn.com/2019/12/20/politics/tsa-whistleblower-airport-safety-invs/index.html”
20211218 – Minds Make Societies
Here is the author’s statement on the main idea of this book:” The following chapters chart some elements of this naturalistic science of human societies, from the way we form groups to the way we interact in families, from human attraction to religious notions to their motivation to create ethnic identity and rivalry, from the intuitive understanding of economics to their disposition for cooperation and friendship. This should not imply that we now know all there is to know about those topics—far from it. But we can already perceive how they make more sense in the context of human evolution. There is great promise in that vision, some would have said even grandeur, if we can make progress in explaining human behavior as a natural process.”
Introduction: Human Societies through the Lens of NatureIn the introduction, the author points out that studying human societies the new approach, closely resembling the general scientific approach to studying nature, produced critical advancement by using evolutionary biology and psychology. The author presents several questions that he hopes to answer with the new approach, such as:
WHY DO PEOPLE BELIEVE SO MANY THINGS THAT AIN’T SO?
WHY POLITICAL DOMINATION?
WHY ARE PEOPLE SO INTERESTED IN ETHNIC IDENTITY?
WHAT MAKES MEN AND WOMEN DIFFERENT?
ARE THERE DIFFERENT POSSIBLE MODELS OF THE FAMILY?
WHY ARE HUMANS SO UNCOOPERATIVE?
WHY ARE HUMANS SO COOPERATIVE?
COULD SOCIETY BE JUST?
WHAT EXPLAINS MORALITY?
WHY ARE THERE RELIGIONS?
WHY DO PEOPLE MONITOR AND REGIMENT OTHER PEOPLE’S BEHAVIORS?
After asking questions, the author presents some rules for answering them:
Rule I: See the Strangeness of the Familiar
Rule II: Information Requires Evolved Detection
Rule III: Do Not Anthropomorphize Humans!
Rule IV: Ignore the Ghosts of Theories Past
The author completes the introduction by describing the positive program of the research of human social behavior.
Six Problems in Search of a New Science
One: What Is the Root of Group Conflict?
In this chapter, the author promotes a few ideas related to the human grouping that he believes the science supports:
- The contemporary nations are mainly recent inventions
- People develop and then cling to ethnicity as the tool to recruit others into their group.
- Humans are “groupish” – they join a group naturally and form their attitude and behavior about issues depending on in or out of group situations.
- People develop particular coalition psychology that synchronizes mental representations of the world, strengthening the link between the group members and preventing defection.
- People create the coalitional institutions assigning people to diverse stereotypes
- They also build the large group by signaling their belonging via appearances
- The separation into groups quickly leads to violence whether the groups are ethnic, religious, or just sports fans.
The author also discusses Hobbes vs. Rousseau’s visions of human nature, noting that reality is much more complicated than either one. He then reviews features of primitive warfare. At the end of the chapter, the author looks at the diversity of contemporary societies and stresses that it causes to many people.
Two: What Is Information For? Sound Minds, Odd Beliefs, and the Madness of Crowds
Here the author discusses various strange panics, mysteries of junk culture, and other similar things. He also looks at human biology’s “good design” when even infants possess lots of intuitive knowledge that support quick learning and effective accommodation to the environment. The author then reviews information processing in societies, concluding that people are not gullible, so all kinds of rumors, mysteries, and conspiracy theories are pretty helpful. His conclusion is:” We generally assume that information is transmitted because of its epistemic value, its connection to the way things are and to potential consequences for fitness. That explains the transmission of vast domains of cultural knowledge, but also of deceptive communication, which favors the deceiver’s interests precisely because it is false. But epistemic value is not the only factor that motivates humans to spread information. The need to be seen as a reliable source, the requirement to detect threat information, the urge to recruit others in collective action, or at least to gauge their potential commitment, are powerful factors. As they are not directly affected by the value of the information transmitted, junk culture is in some conditions both epistemically disastrous and evolutionarily advantageous.”
Three: Why Are There Religions? … And Why Are They Such a Recent Thing?
In this chapter about religion, the author reviews the meaning of various supernatural combinations and their spirituality. The main point that the author stresses is that it all has some adaptive value, or at least used to have. The current world is seemingly moving away from this, but it is not necessarily the case. The author sees contemporary development as the threefold path:
- The first is the path of indifference. This is a situation in which most people evince no great interest in the doctrines or teachings of the different religions. Naturally, like other human beings, people in this context are still attracted to the products of supernatural imagination. Generally treated as fiction, these supernatural notions can sometimes lead to the “extraordinary popular delusions”
- The second path is that of spirituality. The term is of course vague, which is rather apposite, as the beliefs people usually call spiritual are notoriously nebulous. Spiritual movements are focused not on particular statements about the world but on the exploration of various techniques and disciplines of the self.
- The third path is the coalitional path. Affiliation to a particular doctrinal religion turns into ethnic or cultural identity and triggers the thoughts and motivations of coalitional psychology, including the clear separation between those who belong and the outsiders, the valuation of the group’s collective goals, the assumption that the welfare of outsiders is a loss for the group, the close monitoring of other people’s commitment, the attempts to deter defection by making it very costly, and so forth.
Here is the author’s conclusion:” One should not take these three paths as an exhaustive description of the way religious representations could be handled by human minds. Nor should we think of the three paths as alternative and exclusive futures. They might coexist in the same place, and even in the same community. The difference between them lies in individual cognitive processes, whereby religious representations are mostly seen as possibly interesting fictions (indifference), as a way to cultivate the self (spirituality), or as the foundation of group solidarity and intergroup hostility (coalitions). We cannot, on cognitive grounds alone, predict the relative prevalence of these three paths. We can only be sure of very general probabilistic claims—for instance, that increased security favors indifference to religions, that some prosperity is required for spiritual interests, that coalitional recruitment is among the strongest forces in social interaction.”
Four: What Is the Natural Family? From Sex to Kinship to DominanceIn this chapter, the author poses some questions about various forms of families and looks at it mainly from the point of view of evolutionary fitness under variety of circumstances. He stresses that the way sex works for evolution is not direct but rather via promises. He then discusses gender and dominance why and how it defines political orders and domestic oppression. The last part of the chapter is about collective oppression when all men collectively oppress all women.
Five: How Can Societies Be Just? How Cooperative Minds Create Fairness and Trade, and the Apparent Conflict between Them
This chapter discusses human cooperation, altruism, and commons. The author initially treats it as a mystery but then demonstrates that such interactions are usually mutually beneficial and therefore fully justified from the evolutionary point of view. The author also discusses the ideas of justice, where they came from. At the end of the chapter, the author summarizes it this way:” If all this is valid, our conceptions of justice seem to lead to a paradox. The reason humans could develop trade, and expand it far beyond the confines of small-scale production and local consumption, is that we have a set of evolved dispositions for mutually advantageous transactions, based on strong intuitions and motivations concerning ownership and participation in collective action. Because of these mental dispositions, we created an extraordinarily complex economic world, and the prosperity that comes from this complexity. The world created consists in countless products and services, whose existence cannot be explained by our intuitive systems. They seem to appear, but no intuitive system represents the conditions under which they appear. So they are treated by some mental systems as a windfall. This in turn activates our communal sharing preferences and intuitions, which make certain conceptions of justice, notably the distribution of available wealth, both intuitive and compelling, that is, easy to process and convincing. But the notion of redistributing wealth violates some intuitive expectations, to do with effort and reward—those who contribute more should receive more—and of course ownership—those who produce are entitled to what they produced. Redistribution implies some limits to these expectations. Some people may contribute a lot more than others but receive only a little more than others. Some may have to relinquish part of what they produced, in the form of progressive taxation. So, the policies intuitively preferred because of one intuitive system (sharing) clash with preferences from another intuitive system.
There are of course many sophisticated ways of going past this conflict between different sets of intuitive preferences. But that is the point—they are sophisticated, they require the work of scholars, and it takes some effort to learn them, because our mental equipment does not provide us with an intuitive resolution of this inconsistency. Humans seem to generate trade because of fairness, and trade creates results in so much impersonal production that the imperatives of fairness seem to clash with the requirements for trade.”
Six: Can Human Minds Understand Societies? Coordination, Folk Sociology, and Natural Politics
In this last chapter, the author discusses politics and human perception of it. At the beginning of the chapter, he points out that:” HUMANS WERE DESIGNED BY EVOLUTION to live in societies, but they may not understand how societies work. This may seem paradoxical. Man was classically described as the political animal; many people in many places seem to be attentive to political processes and be emotionally engaged in political action; and many people, it seems, even enjoy talking about politics. Political programs, political disputes, and political arguments, not to mention revolutions and reform, all convey general ideas about the way a society works and ought to work, how institutions are created and maintained, how different groups and classes interact, and so forth. Such ideas are not the preserve of specialists; they fill everyday debates and justify opinion among all or most citizens of mass societies.”
The author discusses social complexity, the origin of politics, and typical toolkits of “Collective Actions” and “Hierarchy”. He then looks at what he calls “Folk Sociology” and systematically reviews its principles, consequently mainly rejecting most of them. The list of Folk sociology’s principles looks something like that:
Principle I: Groups Are Like Agents
Principle II: Power Is a Force
Principle III: Social Facts Are Things
The author also discusses Folk sociology as a coordination tool and seeks to derive some lessons for modern politics.
Conclusion: Cognition and Communication Create Traditions
The Author begins this part by pontificating about the nature of culture and then suggests:” So, dispensing for the moment with confusing notions of culture, we have two questions for a natural science of societies, namely, How do people converge on similar representations through communication? and Why are some themes so common in such diverse, unrelated societies? At the risk of ruining the surprise, I should reveal that these are in fact one and the same question, which we can address in a rigorous manner by considering the way human minds infer new representations from communication.”
To answer this question, the author first looks at traditions and then analyses the transmission as selection. Next, he discusses the in-depth development of social essentialism, intuitions and reflections about other groups, and other cognitive processes that define a culture. He concludes by presenting his vision of the future development of the scientific approach to social sciences:” So, rather than a new philosophy, the scientific approach to human societies is grounded in a set of simple attitudes and healthy habits that are in fact rather natural to empirical scientists in other fields of inquiry. One of these is deliberate eclecticism, a decision to ignore disciplinary boundaries and traditions, so that evolutionary findings can inform history, economic models can be based on neurocognitive foundations, and cross-cultural comparisons on ecology and economics. The other habit is a healthy embrace of reductionism. For a long time, social scientists were horrified at the very notion of reduction, and they would clutch their pearls at the very thought of explaining social phenomena in terms of physiology, evolution, cognition, or ecology. The mere mention of psychological or evolutionary facts in descriptions of culture would, according to that academic version of the one-drop rule, irretrievably pollute the social scientific brew. But, in rejecting that form of reduction, social scientists were rejecting what is the common practice of most empirical scientists. Geologists do not ignore the findings and models of physics, they make constant use of them. The same goes for ecologists with biological findings, and for evolutionary biologists with molecular genetics. It was only recently that social scientists realized that these empirical disciplines were all actually making progress, and that may have to do with the systematic use of reduction in this sense, promising a vertical integration of different fields and disciplines.55 That integration is now happening. There is a great hope in these rudiments of a science that would follow the path originally traced by philosophers, historians, and moralists toward explaining the emergence of societies, a truly unique outcome of evolution by natural selection.”
MY TAKE ON IT:
Here are my brief answers to the questions the author discusses in this book:
WHY DO PEOPLE BELIEVE SO MANY THINGS THAT AIN’T SO?
Because people had to rely on other people for information and these other people have other objectives more vital to them than truth and correspondingly adjust information to support these objectives.
WHY POLITICAL DOMINATION?
Because political domination allows people to obtain goods and services from others without giving anything in exchange, it even enables the use of others as disposable tools.
WHY ARE PEOPLE SO INTERESTED IN ETHNIC IDENTITY?
Because the ethnic identity provides at least some security in the permanent competition of us against them, whether this competition is peaceful or violent.
WHAT MAKES MEN AND WOMEN DIFFERENT?
Biology and its role in survival. For the group survival in competition with other groups, women are precious as the foundation of reproduction and individual survival, while men are disposable, being auxiliary for reproduction, but key ingredient in competition with other groups for resources and therefor the foundation of the group survival.
ARE THERE DIFFERENT POSSIBLE MODELS OF THE FAMILY?
Yes, and there are many models. We’ll probably see the new and completely different models when technology allows reproduction without a naturally high workload on women.
WHY ARE HUMANS SO UNCOOPERATIVE?
Because to survive in an environment with limited resources, sometimes one needs to fight for resources with others.
WHY ARE HUMANS SO COOPERATIVE?
Because in some cases, cooperation provides for an increase in available resources while fighting leads to a decrease.
COULD SOCIETY BE JUST?
It depends on the meaning of “just.” Since different people understand it differently, it is an impossibility.
WHAT EXPLAINS MORALITY?
Groups of people in which individuals comply with a set of rules favorable for survival outcompete the groups with no rules
WHY ARE THERE RELIGIONS?
Because true belief increases the probability of compliance with morality rules by making rule enforcement by supernatural force inevitable, whether in the near future or the future life.
WHY DO PEOPLE MONITOR AND REGIMENT OTHER PEOPLE’S BEHAVIORS?
Because supernatural forces seldom, if ever, provide sufficient evidence of rules enforcement. So, people constantly monitoring each other’s compliance with the rules compensate for this deficiency, also providing a mechanism for rules’ adjustment to what people believe is essential and what is not.
20211211 – Virtuous Violence
This book’s main idea is that violence in all its forms is often moral and even obligatory in the eyes of perpetrators and services to regulate their social relationships. Another purpose is to provide modeling of such relationships regulation and apply these models to the historical occurrence of violence and relevant empirical research in psychology to demonstrate how it all works. Finally, it presents some ideas on inhibiting the use of violence.
1 Why are people violent?
“Chapter 1 lays the foundations for the book, stating the theory in the simplest terms, then explaining what we mean by “violence” and what we mean by “moral,” and then briefly comparing virtuous violence theory with previous approaches that address the morality of violence.”
So here is the author’s definition:” “violence “consists of action in which the perpetrator regards inflicting pain, suffering, fear, distress, injury, maiming, disfigurement, or death as the intrinsic, necessary, or desirable means to the intended ends.” The author notes that people normally are not inclined to use violence but do it if they are driven by morality and strive to be virtuous. The author explains this unusual stand by providing this definition of morality:” So we define morality in two ways, which we believe coincide and are indeed two sides of the same psychology. Morality consists of a certain set of evaluative emotions, as well as a certain set of intentions. The motives and emotions concern the feelings that something should or should not be done, while the intentions concern making relationships what they should be. When we posit that most violence is morally motivated, we mean that the person doing the violence subjectively feels that what she is doing is right: she believes that she should do the violence, and she is actually moved by moral emotions such as loyalty or outrage. At the same time, moral refers to the evaluation of action, attitudes, motives, or intentions with reference to an ideal model of how to relate.” The author also discusses in this chapter the cultural relativity of morality and the cultural attitudes to pain and suffering, which are not evil but rather positively good in some cultures. Finally, the author discusses the origins and forerunners of his virtuous violence theory and identifies the book’s scope. The book’s key point, which defines its scope, is an approach to violence as a tool people use to regulate relationships according to cultural rules. In this case, the violence, however bad, is moral in the eyes of its perpetrator. Except for some sadistic and psychopathic personalities, people who inflict violence typically do not enjoy the process but perceive it to be the moral duty they have to fulfill.
2 Violence is morally motivated to regulate social Relationships
“Chapter 2 presents the analytic structure we will be employing throughout the book to understand the social-relational nature of violence: the four fundamental relational models, their essentially cultural implementation, their constitutive phases, and how they are linked into larger metarelational configurations. This completes the foundation and erects the framework of virtuous violence theory.”
The author here defines four elementary relational models (RM) underlying the infliction of violence:
- Communal Sharing: Unity (CS)
- Authority ranking: hierarchy (AR)
- Equality matching: equality (EM)
- Market pricing: proportionality (MP)
The author also defines six ways of how each model generate, shape, and preserve social relationships:
1. Creation: violence that is intended to form new relationships, either between strangers or in a way that fundamentally changes a pre-existing relationship.
2. Conduct, enhancement, modulation, and transformation: violence that comprises the relationship itself – enacting, testing, enforcing, reinforcing, enhancing, honoring, attenuating, or transforming it.
3. Protection: people’s belief that they have a moral entitlement to protect themselves and their relationship partners.
4. Redress and rectification: punishment, making someone “pay a penalty,” retaliation, revenge, purification, restoration of honor, violent sacrificial offerings, or self-punishments in response to transgressions that threaten relationships.
5. Termination: unlike the previous relationship functions, violence not meant to create, protect or restore the relationship but to have it permanently cease. In some cases, this violence is meant to free someone from relational obligations that they can no longer fulfill, such as in cases of euthanasia or Japanese seppuku.
6. Mourning: action in response to the loss of an important relationship due to the other’s departure, defection, or death.
The author also provides a graphic representation for various scenarios.
3 Defense, punishment, and vengeance
Chapter 3 makes the crucial point that people often feel that it is right and necessary to use violence for defense, punishment, or retribution.
Here the author discusses the types of violence that in most cultures considered not only legitimate but also required. In addition to defense, it includes vengeance and retribution.
4 The right and obligation of parents, police, kings, and gods to violently enforce their authority
Chapter 4 explores the moral motives for violent enforcement of legitimate authority.
After a brief reference to history and philosophy, the author discusses corporal punishment of children, military and policing violence, perceived violence by God(s), and other cases of violence by authority. Here is the author’s take on motivation:” The moral motivations for violence grow out of the dyadic relationship between the perpetrator and the victim; but also, and sometimes even more strongly, out of metarelational models linking the relationship between perpetrator and victim to their relationships with third-party nobles, ecclesiastics, and deities; and, in turn, they grow out of those first, second, and third parties’ relationships with fourth parties such as the king, and to an important degree with other subjects of the nobles, congregants of the church, and worshippers of God.”
5 Contests of violence: fighting for respect and solidarity
Chapter 5 illuminates the moral motives for regulating relationships consisting of contests of violence such as jousts, martial and contact sports, or confrontations between gangs.
In this case, the morality of violence comes from its metarelational character. Its use against individuals out of the group allows one to establish and enhance their position, whether as a knight, warrior, gang member, or whatnot.
6 Honor and shame
Chapter 6 characterizes honor and shame as motives for violence in many cultures and subcultures, and we unpack the metarelational moral motives for violence that comprise the framework for the Trojan War and Homer’s account of the violent regulation of relationships among the ancient Greeks.
The author provides many references to works describing specific cultures in which honor and shame play an oversized role in human behavior. He also discusses particular functions such as guest-host relationship, honor killing, and honor among thieves. He then provides a detailed analysis of the metarelational honor model, which organized the violence of the Trojan War.
Chapter 7 describes national leaders’ moral motives for going to war, and soldiers’ moral motives for killing and dying.
Here the author discusses the motivation of leaders and nations that initiate a war and applies his model to actual historical events such as the Vietnam war. The author then looks at the real people who kill: soldiers, fighters, and terrorists. Finally, he analyses moral motivations such as compliance with orders from leaders of the group, protection of comrades in a battle, defense of one’s people or ideology, and so on.
8 Violence to obey, honor, and connect with the gods
In Chapter 8 we consider how humans violently constitute social relationships with gods and spirits, including human sacrifice and excruciating self-torture. After showing that these six types of violent practices are morally motivated to constitute critical social relationships, we pause to explicate virtuous violence theory more precisely.
Here is the author’s characterization of the overall discussion so far:” We have reached the midway point of the book, having characterized the moral motives and relationship-constitutive phases of defense, punishment, vengeance, fighting for respect and solidarity, violence ordered by and committed by authorities, honor violence, violence in war, and violent sacrifice.”
9 On relational morality: what are its boundaries, what guides it, and how is it computed?
Chapter 9 considers more deeply the links between moral and immoral motives for violence, showing that morality is not defined by forms of actions or their material consequences. Rather, morality is culturally defined by local precedents, prototypes, and precepts for implementing the four universal relational models (RMs). We also show that both impulsive and reflectively considered violence are mostly morally motivated.
Here is the key statement describing the author’s position on the perceived morality of violence:” violence is morally motivated when the perpetrator intends the violence to regulate a relationship in a manner that is congruent with the cultural preos as the perpetrator perceives them.” The author illustrates this by presenting a wide variety of cultural norms that define the morality of violence, from traditions of Nuer hunter-gatherers to the 53-page NATO Rules of Engagement Manual MC 362–1. The final question that the author discusses in this chapter:” Is morally motivated violence rational and deliberative or emotional and impulsive?”. The answer is: it is both.
10 The prevailing wisdom
This allows us in Chapter 10 to show how virtuous violence theory either encompasses or complements previous theories that violence results from sadism, psychopathy, rational cost-benefit calculation, or, conversely, failures of rationality. The author discusses the psychology and nature of killers and provides the summary table:
11 Intimate partner violence
Then we tackle forms of violence that people may be loath to acknowledge could be morally motivated, but, in fact, often are: intimate partner violence;
The author notes that Intimate partner violence is widespread and often morally motivated to regulate relationships
Chapter 12 explicitly discusses a frequent form of violence – rape, including gang rape and rape in warfare.
13 Making them one with us: initiation, clitoridectomy, infibulation, circumcision, and castration
Chapter 13 demonstrates that moral motives to constitute critical relationships with or among their children drive people to perform violent initiation rites on boys, to excise or infibulate girls, and to castrate boys.
The discussion here relates to various initiation rates that often include some form of physical mutilation.
We discover in Chapter 14 that moral motives drive the leaders who order torture and their minions who enact torture on victims, as well as the wider public who condone torture.
Here the author concentrates on motivation for torture as it is experienced by those who order torture and those who inflict it. The author also describes some experiments designed to define public attitudes to torture. Here is his conclusion:” In short, authorities order torture to sustain or restore their AR relationship with the victims. The torturers themselves are typically motivated by hierarchy: the desire to sustain and enhance AR relationships with the torturer’s superiors, or competitive AR relationships with peers. Torturers see torture victims as enemies existing outside the CS group, and they are motivated by MP proportionality to acquire information for the common good, using the most efficient means possible, particularly when time and resources are scarce. Public approval of torture is often driven by EM sentiments of vengeance, making the victim suffer as punishment for the evil he is thought to have done.”
15 Homicide: he had it coming
Chapter 15 investigates the motives of killers; we see that most homicides are morally motivated and the killers’ peers and neighbors feel that they did exactly what they should have done. Even mass murderers and mentally ill killers typically kill because they genuinely feel that their victims deserve to die.
The brief conclusion:” In short, when people kill, they usually do so because they feel that a crucial relationship is being threatened or has been violated, that their position in a crucial relationship is as stake, or that the relationship has reached an intolerable state and cannot be rectified, yet they cannot simply withdraw from it by ceasing to interact.”
16 Ethnic violence and genocide
Chapter 16 analyzes lynching and genocide, which sustain what the perpetrators and their reference groups perceive as legitimate, natural, and morally necessary relationships with their victims’ ethnic group or race.
Here the author, for some reason, mixes two different types of ethnic or racial violence: lynching and genocide. However, the author stresses that in both cases, the important feature is a dehumanization of victims.
17 Self-harm and suicide
When we look at suicide and non-suicidal self-injury, we discover that violence against the self is also intended to rectify critical relationships: the person who hurts herself feels that violence makes the relationship right.
The author’s conclusion:” All of these studied cases converge on the conclusion that non-suicidal self-injury and suicide are intended to constitute relationships, especially to rectify or terminate relationships, but sometimes to sustain a crucial relationship by staying with a partner who has died. The subjective phenomenology of injuring or killing oneself is moral as well: it is motivated by shame, guilt, moral outrage, loyalty, love, or the need to evoke love, guilt, or shame. Violence against the self has a lot in common with violence against others, both emotionally and with respect to its regulative functions.”
18 Violent bereavements
Chapter 18 illuminates the final constitutive phase of violence. In quite a few cultures in diverse parts of the world, people mourn the deaths of loved ones by seriously injuring themselves or others, or by going out to kill some random innocent person – and then, eventually, by also killing the witch or sorcerer or manifest assailant whom they hold responsible for the death.
The author describes a variety of cases when people killed or otherwise hurt in process of mourning for an elite person in order to provide this person with support in the existence after the death. He also discusses rage as result of death, that sometimes could be directed at others.
19 Non-bodily violence: robbery
Here authors conclude their empirical ethnological and historical investigations by considering robbery. Though robbers have obviously instrumental motives, it turns out that often they are highly morally motivated to regulate relationships with victims who don’t deserve what they have, or shouldn’t have flaunted what they had. The authors conclude the book with five chapters of further theoretical explorations building on virtuous violence theory:
20 The specific form of violence for constituting each relational model
21 Why do people use violence to constitute their social relationships, rather than using some other medium?
The authors’ answer is:
- it is necessary to attract participants’ and others’ attention to a constitutive transformation of the relationship;
- it is necessary to raise the stakes in the relationship because the relationship is crucial;
- they are constituting the relationship, rather than merely conducting (performing) it;
- there is a great deal at stake;
- people are responding to transgression through redress or protection rather than regulating relationships in other ways;
- people are acting according to CS and AR relational models rather than more dispassionate EM and MP relational models;
- people have no good alternative ways to regulate the relationship, nor do they have alternative relationships, so they cannot simply leave this relationship and start a new one;
- the violence will enhance the metarelational models within which the perpetrator–victim relationship is embedded or enhance the constituent relationships that comprise those metarelational models.
22 Metarelational models that inhibit or provide alternatives to violence
Here the authors discuss how their metarelational model may inhibit violence. They present graphics of their model and qualitatively summarize the variable effects of metarelational models in three tenets:
1. The more important and the more numerous the other relationships that are linked through metarelational models to the focal relationship, the greater their potential effects (facilitating or inhibiting) on the frequency, intensity, and lethality of the violence in the focal relationship.
2. The greater the imbalance between the number and importance of linked relationships that are enhanced by violence in the focal relationship, compared to the lower number and importance of linked relationships that are jeopardized by violence in the focal relationship, the greater the frequency, intensity, and lethality of the violence in the focal relationship. And vice versa.
3. In general, the more metarelational models in which a relationship is embedded, the less violence will occur in it (less frequent, less injurious, less lethal). This is because, more often than not, violence in one relationship undermines or jeopardizes most other relationships linked to the focal relationship, and most relationships are mostly peaceful. That is, most people don’t want most of their associates to be harmed. People typically sanction or avoid people who are violent in other relationships – for their own safety, and because the harm to the victim is objectionable to most of the people who relate to the victim. That is, most of the time most relationships inhibit violence in most of the other relationships in the metarelational models that they are enmeshed in. So, on the whole, the more metarelational models a relationship belongs to, the less violence will tend to occur in it. But, as we have seen, there are many exceptions, the most dramatic of which are cultures of honor and shame.
23 How do we end violence?
Here authors discuss alternatives to violence such as Civil disobedience, hunger strikes, and so on. They also present a list of steps that in their opinion, could reduce any kind of violence:
1. Generate precedents, prototypes, and precepts for non-violent relationship regulation.
2. Generate precedents, prototypes, and precepts that prohibit violent relationship regulation.
3. Generate metarelational models that make important and desirable social relationships follow from and contingent on non-violent relationship regulation. Thus, make peaceful relationship regulation reliably foster other good relationships.
4. Conversely, make violent regulation of any relationship irreconcilable with positive relationships with the perpetrator of violence. Publicly demonstrate to perpetrators that their violence hurts good people whom they should care about, and whom the people they care about. Shame, shun, and ostracize those who are violent to anyone.
5. Make these preos and metarelational models definite and clear, so there is no latitude or ambiguity about the unacceptability of violent relationship regulation.
6. Develop near-unanimous consensus among the primary groups, reference groups, and respected leaders of potential perpetrators, ensuring that nearly everyone adopts the peaceful preos and the metarelational models that ensure them.
7. Ensure that these preos and metarelational models are universal common knowledge: everyone knows them, everyone knows that everyone else knows them, and everyone knows that everyone else knows that everyone else knows them.
24 Evolutionary, philosophical, legal, psychological, and research implications
In this final chapter the authors discuss variety of implications and summarize it in 5 points:
1. At the most basic level, any controlled studies of first-person accounts of violence among either criminal or civilian populations should reveal the presence of moral motives, and these motives will be more prevalent than evidence of self-regulatory failure, instrumental gain, moral disengagement, dehumanization, or sadistic pleasure and psychopathy.
2. Meanwhile, if some violence is seen as obligatory, then doing violence requires increased self-regulatory control. A parent who hates to see his child in pain but knows that a good spanking is what the child needs will be less likely to be able to carry out the punishment when he is tired or his self-control is otherwise diminished. We predict that support for some forms of costly punishment, the kind of punishment that the actor believes is right and obligatory but that requires self-control, will be reduced under conditions of depletion, challenging the view that self-regulatory failure always increases the likelihood of violence.
3. Regarding rationalist approaches to violence, the addition of material incentives for peace can actually increase support for violence. We propose that in the same way that the addition of material incentives often weakens intrinsic motivation, providing material incentives to engage in violent action may lead participants to consider the violence in instrumental rather than moral terms. Hence, adding material incentives when none are currently present may reduce the propensity to engage in violence if the material benefits are small and the potential costs are great.
4. To the extent that dehumanization does facilitate violence, we should expect selective dehumanization of victims to occur, depending on the moral motives of the perpetrators, such that different kinds of violence may be tied to different kinds of dehumanization when it actually occurs. Thus, there is no reason to expect victims of retributive punishment or revenge to be deprived of mental capacities related to feeling pain, as this is necessary for the violence to have its intended effect, nor should the victim be deprived of capacities for reason or intention, as they are what make the victim deserving of punishment. Victims may, however, be deprived of certain moral emotions, such as compassion or empathy. But, of course, victims of initiation rites such as genital excision or violent hazing are often beloved members of the community, so they should be seen as capable of having moral emotions, and to the extent that their stoic endurance of pain is a crucial aspect of the initiation, they should be seen as capable of feeling pain as well. Only under conditions where perpetrators harm someone they are not morally motivated to harm (i.e., the motivation is non-moral) or where they are a passive third-party to harm, do we expect perpetrators to fail to perceive their victims as experiencing pain.
5. If violence is morally motivated to satisfy relational aims, then support for specific forms of violence will depend on the RM and corresponding moral motive people are using. For example, collateral damage, wherein some innocents are sacrificed in order to bring about a greater benefit, should be seen as more morally right when people are relating according to MP, but should be seen as more morally reprehensible when people are relating according to CS, wherein we are all in this together and anyone’s pain is my own pain. Similarly, when relating according to EM, people will feel that a person is required by equality to respond to violence with the same violence in return, but when relating according to AR, people will feel that violence may be committed only by superiors toward subordinates, not vice versa.
The book ends with a very brief coda reflecting on the nature of theory and the merits of inductively generating theory and broad explanations by observing and comparing the widest possible range of naturally occurring phenomena.
The authors recommend a question for any encounter with violence:
- Is it morally motivated?
- Which RM is the person constituting?
- Which constitutive phases is the violence intended to realize?
- What are the metarelationships that facilitate or inhibit the violence?
- What led the perpetrator to use violence to regulate the relationship, rather than alternative means?
MY TAKE ON IT:
I always was doubtful about the typical characterization of violence as something abnormal and done by especially bad people. There are plenty of examples of highly violent people becoming absolutely normal and well-behaving or absolutely normal people becoming extremely violent. One of such examples would be Germany after WWII. Millions of former German soldiers who survived the war came home and mainly behaved as peaceful and nice people. From 1939 to 1945, these soldiers killed many millions of civilians, including children. Sometimes they did it reluctantly, sometimes enthusiastically, but always diligently.
Nevertheless, after the war, there was no wave of violence or explosion of crime in Germany. This example nicely supports the main points of this book that violence is seldom related to psychological problems of individuals but rather prompted by the cultural norms and prevailing at the moment ideology of society. I also find the author’s modeling of violence pretty convincing and supporting evidence comprehensive enough to agree with most of his points. The only thing that I think is overcomplicated is the author’s recommendations on the elimination of violence. I like the way hunter-gatherers handled in-group violence: starting with mocking and contempt, slowly increasing pressure, and, if necessary, quick elimination of irreparably violent individuals by all group members. The same could not be fully applied to violence between states due to extreme costs of contemporary wars, but complete economic isolation, denial of access to technology, and other forms of pressure could do the trick. Overall, I think that the only way to prevent violence is making retaliation or suppression of it inevitable and so costly for the perpetrator that the very idea to use it would become unthinkable.
20211204 – Doom
The main idea is to apply historical analysis and comparison to a contemporary situation characterized by the COVID pandemic and the Cold War with China, then clarify all the challenges resulting from this. The author also reviews several ideas about the cyclical character of society’s development and the variety of non-cyclical catastrophic events, both natural and artificial.
The author begins with his attendance of Davos just when COVIS pandemics had been starting and then describes the allure of doom and uncertainty of catastrophic events. He defines five categories of unpreparedness, which he characterizes as political malpractice:
- Failure to learn from history
- Failure of imagination
- Tendency to fight the last war or crisis
- Threat underestimation
- Procrastination, or waiting for a certainty that never comes
The author points out the lack of incentives for preparedness:” Leaders are rarely rewarded for what they did to avoid disasters—for the non-occurrence of a disaster is rarely a cause for celebration and gratitude—and more often are blamed for the pain of the prophylactic remedies they recommended.” At the end of the introduction, the author discusses some statements of Elon Mask about the future possibilities of singularity or destruction of the civilization and concludes that it is all unknowable.
- The Meaning of Death
This chapter discusses a death, its representation in literature and pop culture, its philosophical meaning, its statistics, and its retreat in recent times due to advances in medicine and improved quality of life:
The author completes this chapter by pointing out the difficulties in quantifying the impact of various disasters, including economic and military disasters. He also referred to locational specifics, noting that COVID was 150 times less deadly than the Spanish flu of 1918, but in New York City, many more people died in 2020 than in 1918-19.
2. Cycles and Tragedies
In this chapter, the author discusses the search for cycles of human development, including various disasters. The author refers to the variety of authors from ancients- Polybius to contemporaries such as William Strauss and Neil Howe, who proposed cycle of “High” – “Awakening” – “Unraveling” and finally a “Crisis.”, Peter Turchin’s “Secular Cycles” with four phases:
1. Expansion: Population is growing rapidly, prices are stable, and wages keep pace with prices.
2. Stagflation: Population density approaches the limits of carrying capacity; wages decrease and/or prices rise. Elites enjoy a period of prosperity, as they can command high rents from their tenants.
3. General crisis: Population declines; rents and prices fall, and wages rise. Life might improve for the peasantry, but the consequences of an enlarged elite sector begin to be felt in the form of intra-elite conflict.
4. Depression: This phase of endemic civil war ends only when the elite has shrunk to the point that a new secular cycle can begin.
He also reviewed in detail the work of Jared Diamond and his twelve-step strategy for coping with a national crisis:
The chapter’s final part discusses how language reacts to times with neologisms like SNAFU or FUBAR.
- Gray Rhinos, Black Swans, and Dragon Kings
In this chapter, the author complains that many people, including world leaders, are unfamiliar with the history of disasters and often claim that it is unprecedented, whatever the current catastrophe is. Next, the author provides a brief review of multiple catastrophic events and a brief discussion of the Chaos theory and its butterfly effect. Finally, as an excellent graphic example of huge populations constantly living at the edge of disaster, the author provides an Earthquake locations map:
This chapter is about human networking. The author starts with discussions about disasters between philosophers from Voltaire to Kant and even provides an excerpt from Adam Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments” about human psychology when one’s own minor problems are much more important than catastrophic disasters elsewhere. After that, the author refers to his previous work on networks that he summarizes in six headings:
1. No man is an island
2. Birds of a feather flock together.
3. Weak ties are strong.
4. Structure determines virality.
5. Networks never sleep.
6. Networks network. He then discusses how human networks transmit various diseases and plagues and provides a map of pilgrimages and trade routes that were used since ancient times:
5. The Science Delusion
This chapter briefly describes the impact of various infections on human societies and their history. It includes discussions about malaria that limited access to tropical areas, the plague that changed the course of Europe, smallpox that cleared up America from its native population, and so on. The chapter also reviews attempts to fight diseases, often without any understanding of them whatsoever. Finally, it looks at the successes of the late XIX and XX centuries that actually worked.
6. The Psychology of Political Incompetence
This chapter is somewhat philosophical, discussing Tolstoy’s approach to history as an uncontrolled and unpredictable movement of millions vs. a process when leaders actually control masses, at least partially. The second part of the chapter looks at political systems, especially democracy, and how they managed natural and manufactured catastrophes, especially famines and wars. Finally, the author provides a summary table for famines:
The author also discusses British-specific events and the tendency to repeat the same political mistakes over and over again. Finally, the author ends this chapter by discussing how empires fall and the impossible dreams of the next generation of leaders about restoration, which usually do not end well.
7. From the Boogie Woogie Flu to Ebola in Town
This chapter looks at the history of the 1957-58 pandemic in the USA and compares its handled then with the COVID pandemic now. He finds material deterioration in the quality of American leadership and bureaucracy despite a huge increase in their quantity and costs. He also looks at the same events, processes, and comparisons worldwide. Finally, the author compares the views of Steven Pinker and Martin Rees and concludes that Rees was correct when:” In 2002, the Cambridge astrophysicist Martin Rees publicly bet that “by 2020, bioterror or bioerror will lead to one million casualties* in a single event.”
8. The Fractal Geometry of Disaster
This chapter is about accidental catastrophes such as Titanic or Bhopal or Challenger, or Chernobyl, caused by human imperfections or plain errors.
9. The Plagues
This chapter looks at the current COVID pandemic, its origins, development, and handling by the media, politicians, and the people. Unfortunately, all of them demonstrated high levels of incompetence and irrationality.
10. The Economic Consequences of the Plague
Here, the author discusses the pandemic’s long- and short-term economic consequences and provides some numbers based on various analyses, all huge and imprecise. Lots depend on future developments, way beyond the scope of this book. The author also allocates quite a bit of space to political polarization in America that seems to be increased with the pandemic, clearly hampering effective handling of the situation.
11. The Three-Body Problem
The final chapter is about China, its rise, and its constantly increasing aggressiveness. The author links it to COVID and other catastrophes. He notes that the China issue is the only issue in American politics in which there is a bipartisan agreement. The author also discusses other geopolitical events of recent years, concluding that we are at “the foothills of a Cold War.” He concludes that the Cold War is already underway, and all that could be done is to avoid it from turning into the Hot War.
Conclusion: Future Shocks
The conclusion pretty much summarizes the book in such a way:
- COVID-19 will be to social life what AIDS was to sexual life: it will change people’s behavior.
- Most big cities are not “over.” COVID demonstrated the difficulty of remote work
- The consequences of the pandemic are not clear, but history indicates that a comeback would make America stronger.
- There are other threads on the horizon, some of them resulting from the coming mass changes due to AI.
- The new Cold War with China is underway, and it is not clear who will win.
MY TAKE ON IT:
This book is a pretty straightforward presentation of current and previous catastrophic events and their consequences. I am well familiar with ideas of cyclical development, and even if recent events arrived right on schedule, I still think that the future is unpredictable. I believe it depends not on some cosmic powers but on actions that people apply here and now and, if these actions are effective, we are at the brink of the new world, maybe even a lot better than our current world. The author’s attention to China and the new Cold War is fully justified. This problem had to be handled much more seriously than it was done by Trump’s administration, leave alone Biden’s appeasement. However, I think that China’s internal weakness, which is not that obvious right now, as well as America’s inner strength, will produce a very positive outcome for everybody. It will be precious for Chinese people if the final result is communists’ removal from power and real prosperity.