Friday, March 26, 2021

Notes While Reading *The WEIRDest People in the World*

I write perfectly useless reviews. I know a competent review when I read one. I leave those to people competent to write them. I'm more interested to note how it is that reading a book has changed me, and then I sometimes go on to urge my (revised, and somewhat tortured) thinking on whoever might read my review. Not very polite, probably. But post Internet, who cares? Right?

Lately, Elon Musk justifies his absurd wealth by saying that he's amassing resources to spread something like the bright beacon of consciousness beyond earth. Far far beyond earth. As though he knows what's good for all of us. He clearly believes that being the richest man in the world justifies his laying claim to be the most intelligent and therefore the one who gets to decide for the rest of us.

Well, after our four years of horror under Trump, maybe some of us among the saner half of the planet will miss our easy calling out of the opposition as idiots. It was ever so much fun! The trouble isn't that they're all idiots. The trouble is that they're not. Intelligent and well-read people seem actually to believe patent absurdities. So much for the beacon of consciousness, especially if by consciousness we mean to say something like intelligence.

Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and the rest of the bozos who own more wealth than the rest of us combined are on the same track; that we should pay attention to them because of how much wealth they've amassed. I know people personally who've been enabled in their rudeness in the very same way!

News flash: being wealthy is no indication of intelligence. To say that it is is an insult to rocket scientists everywhere.

Now what if it's the very same money which has been determining the thought processes of that other half? It's hardly a stretch to say that it is. The self interest of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News and certainly Facebook and Google (do they have selves?) and how about Hannity, can apparently generate an entire alternate reality, full of the same smug apologists (who write better reviews than I do) who rectify (that's a tiny interjection of Chinese, right there) the real world wherein I live .

Can you even imagine someone claiming the right to outsized influence based not on money, but on love? What an absurdity! And yet that very same legitimate claim would belong to Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King, even Mother Theresa, if you don't mind that she was a mass murderer, the way that my renegade but super intelligent Catholic friend designates RBG. Intelligence is as over-rated as wealth is, if you ask me.

Let's focus on Christ. Joseph Henrichs does in this book. I don't think he would ever dare to claim that Christ deserves all the attention he's gotten across two millenia, but it would be difficult to find any other individual, real or concocted (the way that Trump was) who has had more influence on human life on the planet.

I say he wouldn't dare to claim that because he would be ejected from his fine position at Harvard, another moneyed source for authority (Just imagine how few corporate entities could afford a billion dollar fine for sex abuse. And Harvard has better endowment than USC!). You can't quite be a scholar and a religionist, unless you're at a divinity school. Henrichs is more interested in the accident of Christianity, and how consequential that has been for Western social evolution.

I read (present tense) this book between Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett's The Upswing, and what I might consider its sequel, a book called Mutualism, by Sara Horowitz. Those are books which implicitly assume a kind of steady state to what it means to be human, and which present a hopeful and even optimistic read of how we might improve our condition. Both are powerful books by brilliant authors.

In particular, Putnam's book brackets my life, and Horowitz's brackets my experience and my ambition. I've crossed paths with each of them in various ways across my life.

By contrast, this book ventures into understanding humanity as a species undergoing constant change, by way of cultural evolution. Surprisingly, there's even a role for genetic evolution in our recent history, since he maintains that the accidents of cultural evolution have impacted certain aspects of our physiology. Especially our brains (not really genetic change in that case), post-literacy. Our experience, our self-conception, and our ways of living and of understanding are simply not the same as they once were, and as they perhaps still are almost everywhere else. 

This evolutionary process is not subject to amelioration. It just happens. The author, Joseph Henrich, developed his thesis across an adventuresome life, driven, apparently, by intense curiosity about how other peoples live, but also, I lately find, by interest in what? Aerospace Engineering!?!

His book regards what it is that makes us in the Western traditions so unusual. (So special?) His overall thesis regards a set of accidents of history which changed humanity in ways leading up to the industrial and then the scientific revolutions. These revolutions could have occurred only among what would become WEIRD people. "Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic."

I am definitely weird. I live now in a world not changed, in many ways, from the one where I grew up. But global warming then was not yet part of our vocabulary, and driving cars had not yet reached the point of saturation to turn a pleasant outing into an exercise in frustration, and sometimes in rage. But the outlines remain the same - it's the same schematic, as I lately reaffirm by criss-crossing these United States and Canada many many (many!!) times by RV.

By my read, our social schematic is in the approximate condition of a skyscraper after the shrug of the demolition charges set to take it down, but before gravity destroys its appearance of integrity. No worries, it has seemed that way to me since about the time that Reagan was elected. I'm sure we have a moment or two remaining to us.

It feels now as though we only just barely color within the lines. This is while I often feel what amounts to a desperation not to let go of the TV life (not in myself for sure - I've already lived that life) that all us white people have envisioned for ourselves. 

And then came the Huxtables. Dang! Me too, me too! We live in the era of The Spectacle. We are spectators of our very own lives. What a hoot! Really, we should demark our times as the era of the screen. Think about it. Literacy is so yesterday! Update your book, man!

One iconic memory from my own preliterate childhood was Dad tossing my silver spray-painted cardboard robot Halloween costume over the cliff and into the roil of Lake Erie at the bottom of the fossil-filled shale at the edge of our back yard. My clever costume with compartment for candy and puffs of flour exiting an inverted funnel on its head was just one piece among frequent disposals into the vast beyond.

Lake Erie's death scarred my childhood, framed to the East by a second sunset as the Bethlehem Steel Plant dumped what we called slag into the lake, and of course to the West by God's increasingly reddening sunset. Our streets were paved by slag, likely held together by PCB-containing tar. 

The rounded pebbles would catch at the runners on the sleds we dragged behind a Bethlehem Steel junior-executive's long tail-finned convertible. We called those pebbles ‘cinders.’ They looked like globs of congealed volcanic lava, as though we understood what lava was. All we knew was that it looked like what must have come from the slag pouring from the steel plant.

Then came the frenzy of one uncle piloting "flying boxcars" overhead, while his brother would head off to Vietnam. Blond and blue-eyed West Pointers both. We watched the Bell Aerosystems research hovercraft destined to despoil Vietnam pass along our beach in the camouflaging dusk. An open secret. 

Dad built a fallout shelter in our basement. Another early memory of hefting "cinder blocks" onto a plank down which they would slide for Dad to mortar into place. Preliterate me worried that the fallout would come in horizontally and that our position high on a cliff would leave us exposed. Dad explained how radiation went in a straight line to explain why we needed only a baffle and not a door. Why there was no concrete roof.

That fallout shelter later became our pantry for all its stored canned goods, and then my photographic darkroom. We all still managed to have fun, even imagining camping out on the four-decker bunks. No wonder I like to live in small spaces!

I remember with a clarity as though I'd seen the face of Jesus when I learned to write my name. It was that electrically exciting. I was using a red ballpoint pen ("atomic age" puns with ballpoint in Chinese usage) on a brown paper shopping bag.

My prosocial optimism had been wrecked by the time I hit college, obviously. A minor thesis of Henrich's book is that such optimism is essential. He calls it "positive-sum thinking" and such thinking is essential to inventiveness and the cultivation of our collective "brain." I guess positive-sum thinking is essential to cultural evolution in our WEIRD direction.

I spent much of my formative education at Yale pondering the 'why' of the industrial revolution occurring in Europe and not in China. That was after re-calibrating from engineering through physics to Chinese literature. Mine has not been a settled life.

We called this the Needham question, or at least I did. Still on my bookshelves now, despite seemingly endless moves across geography and career, I have the near complete print-set of Needham's opus. I remember how nervous I was transporting the pirated volumes back from Taiwan, as though the customs agents would open my books. I wanted to study with urbane Nathan Sivin, Needham's colleague, as it was, who sometimes paid glancing visits to our Ivy-League classical Chinese poetry club.

Well beyond answering that question, which this book certainly does, and which by my memory occupied many fine minds in those not-so-distant days, this new book presents a thesis which brings together and perhaps even concludes many many streams of thought. The thesis is vastly ambitious, and the book - The WEIRDest People in the World - provides evidence both scientific and anthropological/sociological to be convincing in the thesis' (theses? There are at least 95 of them) proof.

Some of the book's thought-streams question the inevitability of science as we practice it, and even the universality of the scientific principles we live by. Where are our choices, really? Was scientific understanding going to come in any case, if the laws revealed are Platonic/cosmic universals, or is this all some Western aberration? Something to evolve beyond, even?

Whatever the case, Joseph Henrich, the book's author, is implicitly asking his reader to step outside his own tradition, to see it as an outsider might. That is in itself a very WEIRD thing to do. It's what science does.

I'm still waiting for him to attempt an interpretation for why we seem now to be disintegrating all those institutions that we celebrate. Are we somehow becoming less "WEIRD?" American exceptionalism by ironic twist?

Surely the likes of Yale Law grad Josh Hawley prove that our collective tendency to be Wealthy Educated Industrial Rich and Democratic - the WEIRD of the title - can make no claims on our individual disposition to act a lout

My own sense of what's happening is that our WEIRDness is curdling in at least three dimensions, and more likely 95. 

The first would be our patent laws, which only just barely stopped at allowing the patenting of genes (partially thanks to a student in the first class I ever taught - claiming serendipity here, not credit!). Those laws, from their origins, enshrine the notion of the genius inventor who should be rewarded for specific innovations, often largely by being the first to create an embodiment of something that would soon be produced in any case, according to this book's thesis (and according to me). 

Patent and copyright merge in the digital age, and what we now do amounts to slow death to what Henrich calls our collective social "brain." He calls it a brain even as he debases what a brain can do on its own. I am, as you know, gentle reader, an adherent of The Spread Mind thesis, and don't credit brains as much as Henrich apparently does. My brain isn't really all that distinguished from the social brain in which it's embedded.

The second dimension would probably be our precious individualism, based as it is on the ascription of internal traits as that which constitutes our very specific individual personality. I am happy to read him debunking all the personality type tests, on which I am nothing but a chameleon (matching whatever happens to be my current ever-shifting occupation), and sarcastically wishing us individuals "good luck" in finding our authentic self. You go, man!

At about the time that we are celebrating gender transitions, the borders that we cross may all be the same borders. Patent law and practice (now in the digital age) no longer serves the people as patent portfolios - traded on the open market - make a perfect proxy for predatory size of firm (they're all predatory, by definition as we practice so-called capitalism).

The third would have to be religion, which is credited in this book (the Christian tradition through the Catholic Church, and later and more locally importantly, through the various iterations of Protestantism) as the inventor [sick] of WEIRD. 

But by now, our religions have returned to primitive form in stark opposition to what is meant by WEIRD in this book. As with patents, the reading of any book as providing just one literal Way can only be counterproductive to enlightenment. However enlightenment might be defined, it certainly has nothing to do with the belief structure of most evangelical sects, credited though they might be with the stimulation of mass literacy at their Lutheran origins. 

Now I have to ask; what would happen if instead of stepping outside our collective mind, we embrace it more tightly? What if we jump right back into the scientific soup and ask such really important questions as 'why has love meant so much cosmically?' That would be to separate knowledge of what we still call "supernatural" phenomena from received authority structures, though to re-incorporate them into what we call "reality." That should, after all, be the final maneuver in the legacy of WEIRD. No one has the right to tell me that God is a delusion!

I mean simply that we allow subjectivity back in to science, in a very careful way. By any meaning, evolution - cultural or genetic - is built on a series of accidents. Joseph Henrich implicitly denies meaning to the Christian religions. They are, rather, the accidental form which the universalising of ancestral objects of worship (was that inevitable?) took. 

But what if the core of Christian belief is actually, even scientifically, quite true? You know, God is love, and drop the Name already! I'm big on name-dropping! What else do the accidents of evolution - cultural or genetic - add up to? We WEIRD people are all about romantic love, especially as we see ourselves on-screen, though we may be known by our science and our industry. Could love be a cosmic force?

Hell, many of us who consider ourselves sane call all the religious people loonies, even while we - some of us - express certainty that we will someday encounter life elsewhere in the cosmos. Which is to deny that we already have, and that it has nothing to do with UFOs.

If I were religious, I would consider the store of energy contained in fossil fuels to be a gift from God. In those same terms, I would consider humanity as a whole to have sinned by our squandering of that gifted oil to no apparent end beyond, well, the end as caused by our despoiling of the only home we can ever have. Short of breaking light-speed barriers, as though that might be done within the life-span of ours or any other culture. Who are the loonies in this equation?

And so what has technology done to us? Has it made economics back into a zero-sum game again? As in, why do many of us feel that Google and Facebook are stealing our wealth rather than to expand the realm for innovation? Theirs would seem to be a sharing infrastructure which isn't sharing when it comes to their monopoly access and now control of what it is that we might share. They are justified only if primacy of genius remains a root value. And only if genius is always a good and not something that 'stable-genius' Trump or even Hitler bequeathed to our planet (damned Godwin!).

And anyhow it isn't at all clear that whatever we do on our smartphones is on a continuum with the reading habits which once changed the world. We seem only to amplify what we already think that we know. And we are quite literally drowning in words that have almost an urgency about grabbing and keeping our attention. This is no longer the shared "brain" that Henrich says that we in the West lucked into. This is reversion to a kind of beehive mind, where the wealthy are the queens.

Indeed I suspect that most readers will prefer the executive summary of this book, which can be had by way of numerous reviews and introductions in the MSM. The arguments presented here quickly become tedious for those not steeped already in the torture chambers of statistical reasoning applied to sociology and psychology (and to politics, of course). Games devised to mimic actual human behavior, and then broad (broad!) conclusions drawn.

In the big picture, we no longer seem to believe in human progress. It would be hard to know if this is because of the wreckage caused by our technologies as we deploy them, or simply that they feel so disruptive of religious comfort words. I would say that, more likely, it has to do with our economic structures and the cynicism those build as the accelerations of technology in the realm of primacy rewards and gold-shaving wealth-building leaves most of us feeling plainly swindled. 

Where is the love? 

He teases us that maybe we’re too disposed to particles in physics by analytical reductionism, and personality traits same. But there remains something of the rah rah we're Western we’re the lucky ones. The author runs a lab, and has tenure at Harvard with the ridiculously high citation "score" of 84 or something.

I sweated more when I brought banned books with me into China than I did returning with pirated books, but still . . . That was after I thought I'd been marked for very publicly sponsoring a commemorative event a year after the massacres in and around Tiananmen square, June 4, 1989. China's customs officers were no more literate than ours.

Yes, it is our civic duty to sneak around paywalls every chance we get, and to steal books from wherever we can find them, and especially to sneak them across borders. It is our civic duty to turn our backs on every sort of social media. We otherwise will have squandered all that we have been granted in celebration of our public emotions. 

Of course this is me talking, spinning off my read of Henrich's fine book. He is too smart to stray into much speculation about how parochial our abstract reasoning may have become. 

He mocks our cataloguing of [subatomic] particles ever so mildly, right along with our search for some authentic self (built of personality traits as measured by psychologists enamored of type testing). He nods to our current political dysfunction, and by implication the crumbing of the Big D in the WEIRD of his title, which would be (would have been?) democracy with a little D.

As are most of us, Heinrich is embedded in the world he might be criticizing. He knows, as I don't, how to stick to his topic. His bibliography, in which I recognize only a few names, makes a stretch beyond even what Steven Owen has read. But that's the academic scientific game. I, too, have been amazed at the length and scope of my own list of citations when I have been an academic writing academic papers. That's the game. 

It's not the game of life, though. Academic thinking rectifies our shared belief structures until the economic activities in the actual game of life overwhelm shared belief structures, which is to say that trust is overwhelmed and undermined, and then all the academics are only howling in the idiot winds.

Along comes a paradigm shift, suggests Thomas Kuhn, and scientific understanding steps up its game, just as it did to bring along the A-bomb. Was that a gift of God? We've been stalled in the overall paradigms of the Standard Model of Particle Physics now for as long as I can remember. Well, long only given the acceleration of change, which has become our main shared belief.

Plus ca change!  

Evolution is driven by love, or what's a meta for? All of those accidents of evolution end up with a creature capable of love, and now we fully intend to throw that all away in favor of intelligence as our defining feature, even while we hang on to such idiotic ideas as that we can improve things on and for the planet and our fellow man by taking control of accident. Think about it.

As I have and will doubtless continue to detail right here in this web-space, the very particles described in the standard model of physics dispose themselves not only by describable and measurable forces, but also in conceptual ways where the only force is emotive. Wanting is not a physical process.

Anyhow, read this incredibly important book with an open mind. I hope you'll be as blown away as I have been.

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