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I’ve seen Joseph Tainter’s “The Collapse of Complex Societies” recommended in a few different places. Jared Diamond’s book might be one of them, the guest-posts of Captain David Ryan aka “Tony Comstock” for James Fallows at the Atlantic might be another. The sidebar of John Robb’s “Global Guerrillas” blog is the only one I remember with certainty. It’s a not a very long book, and you can get the gist of it from Tainter’s wikipedia page. (more…)

I’m reading Peter Turchin’s “War & Peace & War” (the sequel to “Porgy & Bess & Porgy”) currently. Some of you might jump in at the mention of cliodynamics with cracks about Hari Seldon & comparisons to earthquake prediction, but Turchin has already beat you to the punch there and accordingly proposes more modest ambitions for the field. What instead stuck out to me was his claim in the intro setting up his asabiyah-based theory that rational choice & the “selfish gene” have been debunked by experimental economics and multilevel selection, and that the previously mentioned theories cannot explain cooperation. This seemed wrong to me. Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene” is full of explanations of how purely self-interested genes can give rise to cooperative behavior. In a foreword he even says the book could have been titled “The Cooperative Gene”. Turchin’s background is in evolutionary biology, so I’d expect he knows all this and perhaps has an argument contra Dawkins, but I can’t accept his claim as is on face value. Elsewhere I happen to be involved in a discussion of collective action problems, where I take the position that they do exist but surprisingly often people can come up with solutions to deal with them.

Turchin isn’t the first Russian evolutionary biologist to pooh-pooh the individual organism in favor of the group. The anarcho-communist prince Pyotr Kropotkin wrote “Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution”, which I admit to not having read yet despite owning it (and seeing the endorsements of Gould & Montagu on the back), which argues among other things that competition within a species does not serve to give a Malthusian bound to population growth because animals by their nature avoid competing with one another. The less scientifically inclined Russian anarchist Bakunin was the leader of a group known as the “collectivists” in the First International. More conservative Russians aren’t keen on individualism either. Anatoly Karlin explains the ideal state for Russia being one of “sobornost”, in which Russians are united in a confident patriotism, vs “poshlost” or self-satisfied vulgarity, exemplified by Weimar Germany & 1990s Russia. Russians are always afraid of chaos and hence more willing to accept a “white rider” such as Putin today or Ivan the Terrible before. Like most in the “liberty loop” of Anglo civilization, I am more afraid of the tyranny of the ruler of the central state.

Before picking up the book I was taking part in an argument over whether an analysis at the individual level wasn’t fine-grained enough. Inspired by Derekt Parfit, behavioral economics or perhaps both, Adam Ozimek suggested that an individual at different times might be thought of as distinct persons and this framing undermines the right of a past self to commit suicide, thus depriving the future self of life. I responded that “if suicide is murder, then spending in the present is theft from a future self, sex is rape and a boxing match is battery” but that the shared genes of our past-and-future selves prevent much conflict of interests. Sister Y, as might be expected, disagrees on suicide but does seem more favorable toward the truth of the “successive selves” lens. She just thinks that “possible” entities don’t have the right to come into existence. Karl Smith frames it in terms of an “experiencing self” who wants “good friends and good laughs” while the “remembering self” wants “money, status, fame, power, etc”. I bet nobody likes him. In this discussion I should have referenced Katja Grace’s post arguing that because of the temporally divided nature of the individual, libertarianism should give way to paternalism on matters like smoking. But I forgot to do so until now.

The Austrians are known (at least among the people who know about them at all) for their methodological individualism. The Austrian-inspired libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick once asked why they don’t dig even deeper to use the neuron as their unit of analysis. In his ongoing quest to alienate his old Austrian friends, Gene Callahan has pronounced methodological individualism to be alright for its time but wanting in comparison to newer goods on the shelf.

I was pretty surprised reading Larison to find that Russia has gone to war with Georgia following incursions into South Ossetia. James Poulos has a pretty good roundup here. Sebastian Flyte seems oddly excited here. Oddly enough, the War Nerd has yet to comment. Instead a coup in Mauritania has sparked a reprinting of an old Brecher column, two non-Brecher stories about armed Russians (a corporate raid and drunken airborne troop revelry) and two posts on the old Iran-Iraq war.

This is bringing back some recent memories. I recall seeing part of a BBC special called One Day of War, which I have not been able to find again. Come on, internet piracy! One of the segments featured a Georgian naval captain patrolling near a secessionist region supported by the Russians. However, that wasn’t South Ossetia but Abkhazia. Georgia, like Sudan, seems to have its hands full. Looking at the list of war-zones or hot spots in One Day of War I am struck by how many of Col. Trevor Dupuy’s imagined conflicts in Future Wars: The World’s Most Dangerous Flashpoints failed to boil over. I greatly enjoyed the book anyway and regret that the library I had checked it out from doesn’t have a copy anymore. My memory of that was sparked by Mencius in the comments to this GNXP post continuing on the topic of Turchin and cliodynamics.

Hopefully Anonymous started a discussion with me over the Great Man theory of history vs materialism, which I’m getting tired of trackbacks from my own blog. You can find it from this SB GNXP post on the recent anthrax suicide (the one with the hilarious drunk brother interview on CNN). That post also served as a teaser to the subject of cliodynamics, which is elaborated based on the work of Peter Turchin in this GNXP original post. The post itself is sizable enough, but there’s also a comment storm. Steve Sailer makes his old point that interesting things are hard to predict while obvious things are boring, while Mencius and John Emerson rail against scientism intruding on their beloved subject. I say bring on the scientism. I think it’s ridiculous to consider history a branch of literature, and anybody who does hold that belief should stick to arguing canon at fanpages and leave reality to realists. Also, the commission of poetry should be at least a misdemeanor.

The Nurture Assumption is great writing (the best I’ve read in any pop-sci book) but it isn’t literature. Though kicked out of academia, Judith Harris is as guilty of scientism as any social scientist and reacts to bad studies not by throwing up her hands but looking for better designed studies. Hoo-ahh! I’m unsure about part of her book though. In chapter 9 “The Transmission of Culture” in the section “Welcome to the Neighborhood” she discusses how moving kids from bad neighborhoods to good neighborhoods works wonders because it is peer groups rather than families that shape kids. She references studies on London boys moving out of city (even with their families) and one in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology that said “When African American youths and white youths were compared without regard to neighborhood context, African American youths were more frequently and more seriously delinquent than white youths. When African American youths did not live in underclass neighborhoods, their delinquent behavior was similar to that of the white youths.” I haven’t read the JQC study, but I had read other data saying that the crime rate among blacks in middle class family was higher than those of whites under the poverty line, though I forget if it was closer to the average black or white rate. That idea is not too surprising which is why it has motivated a number of programs to end the cycle of poverty. There’s some info in that link on programs of population dispersal contrasted with neighborhood rejuvenation, and while I agree with Ed Glaeser that Buffalo should be allowed to die, I’m not enthusiastic about the alternative. Freakonomics reports that vouchers transferring kids to good schools doesn’t make a difference, as the kids that apply do just as well even if they don’t get removed from their lousy schools. As Hannah Rosin reports, section 8 and gentrification has resulted in crime increases in many midsize cities. Steve Sailer says, like Harris, that it’s questionable whether moving underclass kids into middle class households will make things worse or better. A school full of underclass kids is likely to socialize kids into underclass behavior, but historically black and all womens’ colleges output larger numbers of scientists in part because there isn’t the same stigma against acting like “them” and there’s more space for kids to get the meagre social benefits of high nerd status if they don’t have to compete with Chang Q Einstein. Harris asks in the next chapter “If two’s company, how many does it take to make a crowd?”. What’s the optimal number or proportion? The answer is that we don’t know. More data is needed, not more literature.

There’s another point of tension in the book. Harris likes to repeat that children are not aspiring adults but aspiring to be competent children, just as prisoners must act according to the code of prisoners rather than guards until they are released. Harris also places great importance on what Freud called the “latent” period as actually the most formative years. But if the years when a child is socialized by a parent don’t seem to have much durable effect and from childhood there is another great transition to adulthood, why should the effects of peers at that age endure? Shouldn’t they be free to adapt to the very different situations they will be in as adults? Maybe there’s an answer after chapter 14 (my current position) or maybe I missed it earlier. Comments are welcome.


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