The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Bret Weinstein. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Howdy This is Jim Rutt, and this is the Jim Rutt Show.
Jim: Listeners have asked us to provide pointers to some of the resources we talk about on the show. We now have links to books and articles referenced in recent podcasts that are available on our website. We also offer full transcripts, go to jimruttshow.com, that’s jimruttshow.com. Today’s guest is Bret Weinstein, an evolutionary biologist and an acute thinker about the future of humanity. Hey Jim, great to be here. Thanks for having me on.
Jim: Great to have you on. Probably all don’t know this, but Bret and I go back quite a ways. What, to about 2012, something like that?
Bret: Yeah, that’s about right.
Jim: Yeah, we worked on something called the Emancipation Party, and then that became something called Game B, and ran to all kinds of funky problems. And actually Bret summed up, I think, is better than anybody why we did not succeed in that path, at that time. And I still repeat this from time to time, Bret said, “Ah, we have too many Thomas Jeffersons and not enough Ben Franklin.”
Bret: I did say that, I had forgotten, but yes.
Jim: That was exactly to the point, it was too pinheaded. But anyway Game B’s making a return these days, and we’ll talk about it later. But anyway, from Bret’s website, I took the following, I’m going to read it, and then I’m going to ask Bret to talk about it, “If humanity continues down our current path, we will not survive. There are too many of us consuming too much. Our technology is too powerful, and we’re all hooked together in one global system. Our fates are now linked, and we will thrive or perish together. We got into this predicament through an evolutionary process. All the problems that we face are actually symptoms of a process that has no name.”
Jim: Before we talk about what might be done about it, could you start by describing the evolutionary and game theoretic dynamics that have brought us to where we are today?
Bret: Sure, have you got a couple weeks?
Jim: Yeah. It’s one thing I do here, I go deep, don’t-
Bret: Go deep.
Jim: Be afraid, doc, go deep.
Bret: Yeah I’m not afraid to go deep. The problem is one of layers, and we can do a short version of this, which is pretty much what we’ll be held to, and then we could spend a lot of time getting into the nuances.
Jim: Yeah, give the five minute version.
Bret: Sure. So more or less our problem is that the magic of humans arose through an evolutionary process driven by an arms race in which human beings were their own worst competitor. So at that point that one reaches what my PhD advisor called ecological dominance, that arms race causes a massive jump in, essentially, computing power.
Bret: And that computing power came along with all of our best and worst characteristics. So it resulted in a spectacular capacity for collaboration, but the objective of that collaboration is increased competitive capacity against other groups with similar powers.
Bret: Now I don’t think we can spend too much time worrying about whether or not that was a good process, it got us this far, and it has given us the capacity to understand where we are. But what it has done is it has created a drive that is now outstripping our capacity to compensate for its consequences. So that quote you read from my website, essentially, is about what I would call a sustainability crisis.
Bret: Now conservatives often hear, when a liberal like myself starts talking about sustainability, they assume that we are cryptically talking about climate, about which there is much disagreement in some circles. I’m not talking in particular about climate, I do think we have a climate problem, but even if it were false, we still have a sustainability problem in which we are simply using resources and creating waste in a way that simply, mathematically, cannot continue indefinitely.
Bret: So you have to at least be a cornucopian to imagine that the problems we are creating will be dealt with in due course by solutions that will magically emerge. I don’t think it’s reasonable to be a cornucopian, but you would have to at least make that jump and say, “Well yes, were we to continue down this road, we’d be in big trouble, but we all know that solutions arise when they’re needed.”
Bret: So if you don’t believe that, then you would end up in my camp and, what I know from experience, to be your camp thinking, “Oh shit, we’ve got a very serious problem, and we don’t have a very long time horizon with respect to figuring out what the solution looks like.”
Jim: Yep, I think that’s very good short summary. In fact, to the point of the fact that it certainly seems to me that we are approaching the cliff, and we may have actually have a hard time hitting the brakes hard enough to not go over the cliff.
Jim: Two datum that I’ve come up with recently I think underscore the seriousness of our situation. Half of the mass of all large mammals on earth are now humans, and then even greater than humans, is our domestic animals, most of its cattle; that’s half of the mass of all large mammals on earth are humans and their domestic animals, mostly cattle.
Jim: And 70 to 80 percent of the mass of all birds, not just large birds, on earth are domesticated fowl. And that’s today with only what? Maybe 15 percent of the world living the advanced Western standard of living. I think those two datums alone, tell us that we are at, or probably over, the ability of the ecosystem to carry on the way we’re carrying on.
Bret: Absolutely. And, in fact, a huge fraction of the protein that exists in us and our domesticated creatures is actually not even natively biological. It is a product of nitrogen that has been brought into the biological cycles by the Haber-Bosch process, which uses fossil fuels to take atmospheric nitrogen and turn it into biotically available nitrogen.
Bret: So in some sense we have chemically destabilized the equilibria that would ordinarily have held us to a much smaller population, with many fewer voracious creatures in tow. But we’ve just simply unhooked it without thinking about what the ultimate consequences of that will be.
Jim: Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up, it’s one of my favorite examples. The population of the earth without Haber-Bosch process is probably one to 2 billion people max, right?
Jim: And here we are moving on eight with the current number saying, “We’ll peak at 10 or 11 by the end of this century.” So let’s say it’s 10, that’s between five and 10 times what could have been supported without this artificial pump of fossil fuel to nitrogen. So we are living way out beyond what mother nature intended. And again, as I said before, that’s before the other 85 percent of the people start to demand their right at the table to live the affluent lifestyle; so we got ourselves a real, real problem here.
Bret: It’s a humdinger of a problem, but I also think it is worth pointing out that at the moment that the Haber-Bosch process came online, first of all, it was not initially intended for creating fertilizer, it was initially created for bomb making.
Bret: It then became useful in the production of fertilizer and, if your listeners can put themselves in the mindset of people who have suddenly discovered that they can make crops grow more efficiently by using energy that is available in surplus to turn nitrogen, that is otherwise inaccessible to plants, accessible at that moment that must have seemed like a godsend.
Bret: Especially if you were compassionate, and you thought about the number of people who didn’t have enough to eat, this must have seemed like the solution to a problem, not the mother of all problems. And yet, down the road, we find that that process has unleashed a set of patterns that we now not only do we not know what to do about them, we don’t even know how to think about them.
Jim: Yeah it certainly … And as you pointed out in previous work, we did not evolve for the environment that we live in. Most of our evolution was completed by 12,000 years ago before the first small town was invented, or settled agriculture. So we are not tuned think about these problems, we have to work at it very hard; but that’s not to say that we can’t do it.
Jim: I think that’s one of the most important takeaways I hope our listeners will take today, which is while our problems are dire, it is not a foregone conclusion that we will collapse. If we’re smart, we may well be able to think our way through this, and then act our way through this.
Bret: In fact, I’ll go one step further. The human niche is niche switching, this is what we do better than any other creature that has ever existed on earth. Now we have set ourselves a new level of problem that, indeed, is unlike any past analog.
Bret: However, what we have on board our human birthright is a mechanism for figuring out what to do when the wisdom of the ancestors has run out. And so we are, certainly, in an extreme version of that problem, but if there’s one creature that is built to address that sort of problem, it is us.
Jim: That’s a very useful and hopeful thought. Let me put forth what I think of as the engine that is driving this late pursuit of the edge; if we want to call it that, the eco side. And I know you’ve heard me say this before, it’s the pursuit of money on money return powered by psychologically astute advertising that really got underway in the 1930s, and now reaching its near perfection with the highly instrumented, attention hijacking systems which are our interactive social media.
Jim: It’s as if one of the things that got us to have all the good things we have in our society has now turned into the paperclip maximizer that people talk about in artificial general intelligence. What do you think about that read?
Bret: Oh I absolutely agree with this. What I’ve said elsewhere is that the AI apocalypse is already upon us, but we don’t recognize it because we were expecting robots. And the fact that it isn’t robots, its algorithms, they are already proving to be out of control and causing us to do massive self harm. And the way you can tell that this read, which you and I have arrived at together, is correct is to look at the behavior of people in the best position to understand the power of these algorithms.
Bret: So every so often we will get a defector from Facebook, or elsewhere, who will tell us about the extreme measures that they have to go through in order to retain control of their own lives in the face of algorithms they had a hand in writing.
Bret: So I think what they’re telling us is they don’t know what the algorithms do, and they don’t know how they work, nor should we have expected them to. The very thing about AI that so frightening is that just as we are wired for success rather than comprehensibility, the algorithms wire themselves to be effective. And what psychological apparatus they trick, and in which way, can be a matter of speculation.
Bret: What the market does is it finds those things that are effective and amplifies them. So these algorithms have, clearly, gotten out of control, and are having an entirely unknown effect on our ability to collectively think and see the predicament that we find ourselves in.
Jim: Yeah, I had a conversation with a friend of mine at lunch, and he dropped this gem, which I thought is so good that I have to share it. Which is these black box algorithms, and that’s important to remember. This deep learning revolution of the last seven or eight years is not good old fashioned AI, which was a bunch of logically understandable statements, “If this, then that, or the other thing. Look up on this list.” These are, basically, impenetrably opaque neural simulations.
Jim: Nobody can say with any great certainty how they do what they do, or what they actually weigh, and to what degree; they’re very nonlinear. It’s been amazing the progress has been made, but it’s also very scary how opaque they are.
Jim: But anyway this friend of mine pointed out … And I don’t know why I didn’t think of this first, god damn it, which is the dating apps; Tinder and … I don’t want they are, I’ve been married for 38 years, I don’t know about the dating apps.
Jim: But anyway, there’s a bunch of dating apps, I know one of them’s called Tinder, and they’re driven by these black box algorithms. And dating leads to marriage, which leads to children; therefore, black box Ais are now driving human evolution.
Bret: Yeah, that’s a really interesting point. Although you said something I think we should correct. You said that, “Dating leads to marriage, which leads to children.” I think you’re showing your age, Jim.
Jim: Well it doesn’t all the time but, on average, it does. I mean it certainly it’s … There’s a strong positive correlation.
Bret: No, I think if I understand what the kids are telling us today, dating leads to hooking up, which leads to ghosting; which I’m not sure what that is, but I think it’s not good.
Jim: No, I think ghosting is like when you break up with somebody by refusing to respond to their text messages. See, I’m not as old as I look.
Bret: Yep. [crosstalk 00:13:48] I agree with you, that is what it seems to mean. But anyway, yes, there does seem to be a rapid departure from rather ancient wisdom about how life gets lived. And some of that departure, I am absolutely certain is good, but the level of departure is so great that it can’t possibly help but be catastrophic in the aggregate.
Bret: But I agree with your friend, there is a way in which these algorithms are going to be driving the kinds of affiliations that result in offspring, which will then, potentially, affect what sorts of offspring we end up seeing. And I don’t think that’s so vital, I don’t think there’s anything at a genetic level that’s worth talking about in that regard.
Bret: But what is worth talking about is that most of what kids pick up in their natal home that is of consequence is culture; the way they think is heavily structured by the way their parents thought. And to the extent that the dating apps, or whatever they are, may result in combinations of cultures that have some sort of new emergent nature, who’s to say what the outcome might be?
Bret: I mean, frankly, it could be positive. You could get a situation in which it used to be that you tended to marry people who came from near enough that you shared a whole lot of culture, and it could be that this is a moment in history in which we would actually benefit from people being paired up by algorithms who wouldn’t otherwise have ended up together; perhaps that results in more broad mindedness.
Bret: On the other hand, I’d have to say evidence from the immediate presence suggests the opposite. We’re seeing an epidemic of narrow mindedness and, in fact, we’re watching heterodox thinkers being socially penalized for daring to say things that are out of phase with the current fashion.
Jim: Yeah, we’ll get to that later, because that is certainly a major theme of what’s going on in the world today. But before we do that, I want to also point out that things like algorithmic driven businesses, or just businesses driven by astute psychologically informed advertising, are also driven by the fact that something broke in our culture, and I would put the timeline somewhere around 1975.
Jim: Before that people in business, at least the fair number of them, weren’t money on money maximizers at all costs. In fact, the way I got involved in this whole discussion that led to Game B all that was Jordan Green Hall, now Jordan Hall, and I met out of the Santa Fe Institute one time. And after a board meeting, we sat down and talked for about four hours; we realized we saw the world fairly similar, that was the first time we’d met.
Jim: And I was laying this out that when I joined the business world, 1975, the people that ran even publicly traded companies often would not do things that would be profitable if they thought they were wrong. But by the 90s, the ethos has changed to be if something was arguably legal and profitable, not only should you do it but, perhaps, you had a legal duty to do it.
Jim: There was no sense of what was honorable, or what was honest, or what was good. And I think if we say where are we in 2019? It’s gone even further, which is not only is it arguably legal, but the current standard in big corporate America is, on a risk adjusted basis, are the penalties for getting caught smaller than getting away with the crime?
Jim: Look at the money laundering the big banks are constantly being busted for. A group of them over in Europe were just busted again for money laundering hundreds of billions of dollars, and yet they get slapped on the wrist for a few hundred million dollars, and they probably made money on it. So anyway, a system where honesty and good faith has become a sucker play is just setting up a competitive ecosystem that’s engineered for sociopaths.
Jim: I was a corporate executive, a C level executive, at a major multinational, then a CEO at a medium sized technology company. I’d say, in my experience, probably 10 percent by the year 2000 of C level executives were sociopaths. And maybe 30 percent, the higher levels of finance, so that compares to one percent or so in the general population. So it strikes me that not only do we have an algorithmic problem but, relatively recently, we have had a breakdown in values and morality in the social operating systems that operate our economy.
Bret: Well I don’t think that’s what happened, actually. I agree with your description of the transition, but what happened is not a breakdown, it is an evolutionary trajectory that was absolutely inevitable in light of the incentives that govern the system.
Bret: In other words, the quicker you woke up to the opportunities that weren’t morally acceptable, but were legal … maybe not even legal, but weren’t going to be prosecuted, the quicker you profited, and the more your strategy spread.
Bret: So what we saw was, basically, it’s not even an analog for the evolutionary process of a creature discovering a niche, and evolving to exploit and fill it, what we have is the identical object. We have, basically, the market discovering everything that isn’t being policed, and is profitable, and exploiting it to the maximum extent possible; and really, what else did we expect?
Jim: Thought it didn’t, necessarily, do that before; the same dynamic could have existed. I will argue the other side of that and say that, yes, there is indeed a game theoretical ratchet that pushes businesses towards that. And prior to 1975, there was a social ethos that most companies did not take that road. So there was an ability, socially, to resist the forces of the game theoretical ratchet.
Bret: I 100 percent agree with that. In effect, what you had was a gentleman’s agreement that was being policed, so that somebody prior to the evolution of this change would have come out behind in so doing; this would have been policed maybe at the country club, rather than in a court.
Bret: But what happened was globalization caused a circumstance where what they thought of you down at the country club mattered less because you were in a much bigger pool and, effectively, the evolution of ruthlessness was an inevitable consequence of the fact that we did not forestall the exploration of this evolutionary trajectory by treaty or its equivalent.
Jim: I think that’s actually a good way to look at it; I like that a lot. And some people say, “Well it is what it is.” I would say we should look back to David Hume, the Scottish philosopher, and the famous is–ought problem; just because something is isn’t the way it ought to be. If our system really is spun up to exploit every extractable rent extracting opportunity, a lot of it operating on the cognitive weaknesses of human nature, how can we fight back?
Bret: Well I think we are wired to fight back, and the question … mean really, to me, there is almost one question. The question is those of us who understand that we must fight back, can we engineer a system that allows us to opt out of the things that are so toxic, without being competitively overrun by those who refuse to opt out? That’s really the Game B question as I see it.
Jim: Yeah, that is one approach to Game B which is the withdraw and parasitize Game A while not taking the toxins in yourself. The other alternative, called the Emancipation Party alternative is that, historically, the way that markets have been limited so that they were good for humanity, and not run amuck has been through governance.
Jim: And so the other alternative is to for the humans to finally wake up, and seize control of their governance, and use the market which is one of the greatest inventions of humans of all time, but use it in a way that it’s like a fire in your wood stove, not a fire burning down your house, I think. So-
Jim: Both roads are possible.
Bret: But I don’t think that’s two roads, I think that’s one road. The fact is we have to utilize markets as a tool to forge the new system; you’re not going to get there any other way. Even modes that might once have worked, like revolution, are implausible they would create far more destruction at this moment in history.
Bret: So we have to use something like markets, and we have to use governance to structure those markets so that they return an answer that is viable rather than self destructive. Now the question is how you do that, and the Game B answer has to be through the exploitation of mechanisms that are competitively superior to the parasitic mechanisms that we face and, therefore, spread naturally through competition.
Bret: So we can talk, and we probably should talk about what Game B is and isn’t. But I think, baseline, it has to be the idea that we are in search of a solution that solves these problems without any of the failure modes that would accompany solutions of the past.
Jim: Yeah, I think that is, at the highest level, a good description. And I would add, with the caveat, that it does so in time that we don’t have a disastrous crash when we reach the limits of our ecosystem, which appear to be no longer than 80 years from now at the most.
Bret: At the most, and it could be a lot less, and I’ll point out relative to something you said at the beginning of the conversation. One of the things that I fear is that we are talking about systems that are so complex, that the thresholds beyond which there is no plausible return probably will be crossed without anybody knowing that it is happened.
Bret: So for people who are used to dealing with the kinds of systems that shutter before they break apart, who may be thinking that things are relatively all right based on a kind of Steven Pinker sort of analysis about where we are, are going to lead us into ever greater danger, because the threshold that must not be crossed will be invisible until it’s far too late.
Jim: Yes, I think that’s a hugely important point for us all to be cognizant about. Bret, as you know, I’ve been a student of complexity science for about the last 18 years and, frankly, the biggest takeaway from studying complexity is what I would describe as epistemological modesty. We know a lot less than we think we know what’s going to happen in a complex system. And, essentially, every system that’s at all interesting, with respect to human affairs today is, indeed, a complex system.
Bret: Yeah, it’s a complex system, but I would point out that the fantastic difficulty of comprehending these things is the flip side of the simplicity of the basic principles that run them. And so to the extent that one looks at a biological organism, for example, and thinks, “Oh my goodness, I mean, even just a diagram of the known metabolic pathways is almost beyond human comprehension.”
Bret: On the other hand, this thing springs into being automatically. It self-assembles, it maintains itself, it repairs itself, it defends itself, all starting from a single cell in which the instruction set is written in a code of four letters.
Bret: So the point is that the thing is so darn elegant, that we ought to be thinking in these terms with respect to how civilization should run. In other words, we should not, we must not be imagining a highly complicated governance structure to maintain the well being of people; that will turn into a nightmare. What we need is a highly elegant governance structure that does the heavy lifting of modulating a civilization that exists at a level of complexity that we will never fully comprehend what’s going on.
Jim: And that’s a good goal, though I would say the other takeaway from complexity science is it appears to be, in principle, impossible to accurately determine the emergences that you will actually get from the simple underpinnings of a complex system. So we can design an elegant and basic operating system, but the actual result, I would argue, is unpredictable. Which leads me to believe we should not believe our own designs, we should approach-
Jim: Game B with a tentative modesty, with an experimental and evolutionary perspective.
Bret: So you and I, it does not surprise me, have arrived in a similar place here. What I say is we are not smart enough to design the system we need, but we are smart enough to navigate there.
Jim: I like that.
Bret: And that, effectively, what we have to do is take a good guess that where the foothill of the system we’re trying to find is, and then we need to ascend by empirically, basically prototyping, and empirically discovering what the unintended consequences of our best guess were, where we can improve on things.
Bret: And we must, maybe above all else, avoid any instinct towards utopian thinking; that utopian thinking is the undoing of any such plan. And that one needs to do is recognize that we will recover an incomplete set of our desired goals. But what we can shoot for, if we use the P Principle and thought, “Well we can’t be 100 percent free, but we might be 80 percent free.” At the same time, we are 80 percent safe if we start to balance things in this regard, that we can produce a system that far outstrips our grandest hopes without being unrealistic, without being utopian.”
Jim: That within the constraints of mother earth, right?
Bret: Of course.
Jim: At least until we’re off of mother earth. That’s the boundary condition, that’s the mother earth [inaudible 00:28:59]. So all this thinking has to be within that constraint.
Jim: I’m glad you mentioned trade-offs and Pareto, because I know that’s been part of your very important probably close to the foundation of the work you have done in theoretical evolutionary biology. Maybe you could do a little sidebar on how trade-offs in evolution work.
Bret: Sure. I mean, the irony is that trade-offs in evolution work exactly the same way that they do in engineering and economics; we just don’t know how to map them yet. So one of the things that I discovered when I was doing my dissertation work, which ended up being a theoretical exploration of trade-offs and the rules that govern them, was that there were certain systems that I knew well enough that I could peer into them and see how trade-offs work, and then back up and try to look into a biological system and find the same sorts of properties.
Bret: So, for example, I was a photographer, fairly serious about it for a while, and the kinds of trade-offs that one encounters with respect to having a given number of photons incident on the lens that then can be spent either freezing motion with a fast shutter speed, or making a sharp image with a small aperture, that those trade-offs mirror the sorts of things that we see in nature with respect to, for example, the wing shape characteristics of flying animals like birds and bats.
Bret: And so the key insight of my dissertation was that trade-offs were not one-off phenomena. That, in fact, every two desirable characteristics that existed in the same mechanism, or the same organism had a trade-off function that related them.
Bret: And that the reason that we did not intuit this in biology is that many of those trade-off functions have a bargain at one end, and so we don’t see any diversity at all along the trade-off because creatures that express anything other than the bargain condition are eliminated competitively.
Bret: And so we see one state in nature and we do not intuit the fact that the function is more complex than that. But there are circumstances in evolution that will reveal other parts of a trade-off, and that’s really the game that we’re caught in.
Bret: We’re caught in a game in which we see a desire to improve things and we view evolution, traditionally, we have viewed it as an engine of improvement. But a sophisticated player in the space recognizes that improvement quickly exhausts itself as a cost-free or nearly cost-free pursuit. And that, ultimately, the game one ends up playing is one of balancing competing concerns as elegantly as possible.
Jim: Yes, I remember reading in some of your biological thinking about how that really wasn’t even grasped by a biologist and I was shaking my head. Because my own scientific home base, to the degree I have one, is in evolutionary computing where we essentially create software by evolving it using, essentially, toy models of crossover mutation, and sometimes more sophisticated techniques.
Jim: But in evolutionary computing, very early on, we started realizing many of the interesting questions were multi variable, and that the best you could do was optimize to a Pareto frontier, and then it was a matter of value decisions and where you wanted to be on that frontier.
Jim: Where you did not want to be is a place where there was a better place to be without, you could change A and get a better position on A without losing anything on B; you didn’t want to be behind the frontier. But once you had defined the frontier, then it was a values question of where you wanted to be on the frontier.
Bret: Where you want to be on the frontier, and then you can increase the sophistication of the game by mapping, for example, changing conditions onto your efficient frontier, which then causes that desirable location to start moving around in ways. And, lo and behold, if you play the game long enough, you begin to realize that every evolutionary question that we biologists find difficult is actually has a tremendous amount of light you can shed on it by simply recognizing what the underlying fundamental trade-offs, are and what sorts of things are pushing creatures around with respect to them.
Jim: Interesting. Now going back to the Game B, one of the really interesting people I would suggest people check out his work is very, very creative in the possible economics of a Game B world is a guy named Daniel [Schmottenburger 00:33:44].
Jim: Well after reading his economics, he and I started having a series of discussions, and we actually talked for four hours with me arguing against Daniel’s hypothesis that a Game B economics would eliminate trade-offs; that struck me is just entirely implausible.
Bret: Yeah, well let’s put it this way. Daniel’s a very smart guy, I know him pretty well as well. He might mean something by that that is recoverable but, as stated, there’s no conceivable way it can be true. Now what you can do, and what you will see creatures do all the time is they will innovate a mechanism to spectacularly reduce the cost of some trade-off.
Bret: But when they do this, what happens is they temporarily become what we would call a super species; that is to say a competitor that’s simply ahead of all of the others with which it’s competing. And then at the point that it has eliminated those competitors, it will diversify. But all of the descendants will have the innovation that allowed it to exceed some prior trade-off.
Bret: So, in some sense, it’s very much like the situation that you were describing a few minutes ago with respect to the evolution of computer algorithms, where you find that there are frontiers, and you want to be at the frontier, you don’t want to be suboptimal and be below the frontier, you want to be in the optionality zone. But what there are frontiers stacked on frontiers and then, ultimately, the laws of physics or chemistry will provide a limit that cannot be exceeded.
Bret: So for example, if we think about minimizing surface to volume ratio, you get to a sphere and there’s nowhere to go. So nature, many times, has minimized surface to volume ratios for various reasons like minimizing the radiation of heat, for example. And it will come up with something spherical, and we shouldn’t be expecting a next innovation because, geometrically, there’s nowhere to go.
Bret: Whereas if you go the other direction, let’s say you were trying to maximize surface to volume ratio, there’s all kinds of literal convolutions you can add to a structure in order to increase the rate of contact it has with the environment or neighbors; and so there’s all sorts of room for evolution to take place. So I don’t exactly know what Daniel might be getting at with respect to eliminating trade-offs. He may be saying something along the lines of eliminating perceived trade-offs.
Jim: I’ll have to go back at it, but a four hours he couldn’t convince, me and I couldn’t convince him, so I think it’s some work we need to do. But I’m with you that I believe that trade-offs are fundamental to the nature of reality, right?
Bret: I’m as certain of that as I am of my own name.
Jim: Ah, so I think we’re on the same page. As you say, Daniel is a very smart and good faith guy, and it may well be that he’s trying to communicate something; I was just too dense to get it, so I will touch back in with him and see if we can make sense of this.
Bret: I want to pause you there for one second. I don’t think it’s a question of anybody being dense, I think it’s something else. I have seen this now many times, which is you’ve got fields which get stuck. I would argue that they get stuck regularly and for evolutionary reasons.
Bret: But once they are stuck, you’re left with everybody inside the field thinking the same incorrect thoughts, and then people on the outside trying to figure out how to break through the deadlock. What the people on the outside, inevitably, end up having to do in order to break through deadlocks, is they end up inventing their own language. In other words, the language that they are handed isn’t good enough to solve the problem, so they end up redefining terms.
Bret: And, unfortunately for most of the people who do this, they forget that they’ve done it. The language becomes so native to them that when they talk to somebody else, they are using a language that has been partially personalized. And the person they’re speaking to imagines that they’re speaking gobbledygook, because the way they’re using terms doesn’t add up in a standard framework.
Bret: And so my best guess would be that Daniel, being the way he is, he has most certainly redefined some things in order for him to do productive work, and forgotten how those things … if he uses those terms without clarifying them, how they get heard by others.
Jim: Yeah, and we’ve seen this before and, unfortunately, I always thought that people are going to do this, they ought to have a personal glossary online so that when you’re talking to Daniel, or Jordan, or somebody that when they say X They actually mean Y, at least the mapping it back to standard English.
Bret: A glossary is a good idea, and I’ve toyed with the same idea of writing one for myself. But in practice what I’ve seen happen is it takes a couple of weeks of interacting with somebody … If they don’t know anything about the topic, and you something, and you’re teaching them, that’s something you can do relatively straightforwardly. Of course, they will pick up your weird terminology, and they won’t understand why other people don’t resonate with it.
Bret: But if two people have done independent work, and then they sit down to compare notes, they will both have personal languages. And it takes a couple of weeks of discussing even relatively mundane things to bring out what these definitions are and what they mean.
Bret: What I always say, when I’m in the situation is, “Look I don’t need the right to define a particular term.” Like if I’ve redefined the term sympathy or empathy for reasons of making progress with respect to that realm, I don’t need the right to define those terms. But I do need the right to have a term that means what I mean when I say that. And either we’re going to use my terms for the purpose of the argument, or we’re going to come up with some other term. But what I can’t be left with is the same blunt objects that everybody else is using, I need some term to mean X.
Bret: And so anyway, two people who have done this in an adjacent realm take several weeks to learn each other’s language. And again and again, I’ve seen those couple of weeks can be quite contentious because it does feel like you’re talking to somebody who doesn’t get it. And then, ultimately, when you figured out what they mean by X, Y and Z and what you mean, it can be very productive. But I don’t know of any way to fast forward through that process.
Jim: That’s actually a very good point. And we’ve seen this again and again at the Santa Fe Institute were doing really radical trans-disciplinary science is one of our hallmarks. And when we do a workshop where we bring 20 people in from around the world, from many different disciplines to work on a single problem, we basically just assume it’ll take at least three days; and that’s eight hour days just to get the terminology straight.
Jim: So this is a known problem in the sciences, and it’s almost certainly a related problem in this area of the future of society, so I’ll take that personally as a mission to not argue so hard, rather try to find out what is it the other person’s saying. Because we know they’re not dumb, they must be trying to say something, they just are using words in a different way than I am.
Jim: Let me pop back one level before we go further into Game B; something I forgot to talk about when we were talking about the current state of the world, but I think it’s hugely important. And that is we have co-evolved very, very recently the ability for everybody to talk to everybody; at least through a filtered network.
Jim: But, in principle, I could post a tweet that could get seen by 20 million people, or even 2 billion people. And, unfortunately, again as we’d unfortunately expect in a world driven by money on money return, and game theoretical ratchets. But what we’ve ended up with is a huge amount of bad faith discourse on these social networks.
Jim: How do we think about putting these networks, which should be a very powerful engine for the good, how do we think about policing them and turning them into something useful without having them become something even worse, which is a domain of censorship by one party or the other?
Bret: Well are you talking about the platforms themselves, or are you talking about the communities that live on them?
Jim: Well it’s both, unfortunately. I mean the bad faith discourse currently isn’t coming from the platforms themselves, they’re coming from the players on the platforms. And but what I’m hearing, sometimes as a proposed cure, is that the platform should start to be sensors. In fact, in the last year, they’ve started to be sensors, and that strikes me as equally, or maybe even more dangerous than putting up with bad faith discourse.
Jim: Is there some alternative where we don’t have to rely upon the good faith of fairly peculiar dudes out Silicon Valley, but yet we can start to reduce the impact of bad faith discourse on these networks?
Bret: Yes, there is absolutely an alternative. And I will say, I don’t think having the platforms police this stuff is any sort of solution to any known problem. Yes you can address certain kinds of noxious speech that way. But we already know the cost, and it’s a disaster, and it’s an especially big disaster in a condition where these entities have a financial motive to alter thought, or to prevent certain kinds of transitions in thought.
Bret: There’s no way that these private concerns can be empowered to adjust what is tolerable with respect to speech and have them do anything like a decent job. So as far as I’m concerned, that’s a non-starter.
Bret: The alternative of having a total free for all is better but it, obviously, has its own problems including the level of noise. What I think we are seeing … So we have two things going on simultaneously. We have the platforms taking on a policing role, which they are screwing up badly and in which they have perverse incentives. And then we are watching communities try to self police.
Bret: And, on the one hand, I think the instinct to self police is a good one, and that it works at small scale, but what we are seeing is that the mechanisms of self policing simply do not work at large scale. And so that’s really what we need is a means of taking those things that function at small scale, and scaling them up without creating an authoritarian nightmare that dictates the limits of permissible thought.
Jim: Yeah, that seems to be about where we’re at. And you’re right that when groups are under 10,000, perhaps, self policing seems to work. I’ve been a member of an online service called The Well since 1989, and it actually started in 1985; it’s still out there. If you want to check it out, well.com. It’s kind of like the Colonial Williamsburg of the internet; you can still use the command line version if you’re so inclined. There is a web version, but probably 20 percent of people still use the command line.
Jim: But anyway, it’s been a famously contentious community from the very beginning, lots of flame wars and such, But nonetheless, there was an emergent, cultural, non-authoritarian sets of limits on what people would do within that community. And I think in the 30 some year history of the thing, they may have expelled 10 members at the most. And yet it was never a community of bigger than 10,000; it’s about 2,500 now I think, something like that.
Jim: We’re also seeing some success in Game B and Game B proximate groups on Facebook. We have Rally Point Alpha, it’s a Facebook group people might find interesting. I think we have like 1,500 people on that, and we have a set of principles, and it keeps discourse pretty decent.
Jim: The Game B Facebook group has a bit more complicated sometimes for my taste, a bit too complicated set of guidelines, but they also seemed to have kept the peace. But you’re right, so far, when we see these groups get big like Facebook scalar Twitter scale, cultural and soft means of policing seem to fail.
Jim: And neither of us want to go down the road of empowering these platforms to make these kinds of decisions. So that leaves us with having to find scalable tools, which I find amazing that the platforms themselves are not investing in providing us tools to prune our own behavior. Of course you pointed out part of the reason for that is that as long as they’re in the attention grabbing advertising sales model, their incentive is to keep us online for as long as possible. And so the last thing they want us to do is to be able to radically prune the stream of stuff trying to grab our attention.
Bret: That’s right. Now I will say I have had a very odd experience online, and while it does not point the direction to what we collectively should do, it does suggest that there are opportunities out here that we may not be aware of. So I hear very frequently about how terrible Twitter is, for example, as a place to discuss things; and I’ve certainly seen that.
Bret: But my own weird story, the story that brought me to public attention, has resulted in a community of people who follow me on Twitter who a, do have some experience with the way I think, the topics I tend to explore. They’ve, I think, come to trust me that there isn’t something lurking in my character that’s going to suddenly emerge and embarrass them if I say something that sounds difficult to understand, there’s probably something behind it.
Bret: But in any case, what I’ve seen is, in general, that community … And I think I now have a quarter of a million Twitter followers. That community is, in some way that I cannot explain, self policing, it is generous, people look out for each other, they look out for me.
Bret: If I say something that can be misinterpreted, people explore it so that it becomes clear in the replies to a tweet; or something like this. And there’re only three or four times in the last couple of years, couple of years being … see again 2017. In April of 2017 I had 400 Twitter followers, now it’s quarter of a million.
Bret: And in those couple of years, there have only been, I think, it’s four instances where I have unleashed something that was, I would say, out of control and mean spirited by virtue of having tweeted something that set people off. In general, my experience is of a community that is, surprisingly, nurturing, and caring, and decent, and intelligent, and nuanced.
Bret: So I know that that’s not the general experience, but the fact that some of us and my wife, Heather Heying, who also has a large following experiences the same thing. My brother Eric Weinstein who has a similarly large following … I think he’s now somewhere above quarter million. But he has also experienced, in general, a generosity of spirit online.
Bret: So what this says is that there is some subset of us who are having a different experience that isn’t quite so toxic. And it would be worth knowing what it is that allows that to happen because, frankly, I think if people knew that it was out there to be tapped into, they might explore to figure out how to get there.
Jim: That’s interesting, and worth thinking about it May be that it’s, essentially, polarized around one topic/point of view. And not really one topic, but least a point of view and that people self assemble there because they plus or minus share that point of view. If we go out to the wilds of the internet in general, Facebook in general, Twitter in general, that’s not the case; there isn’t, necessarily, an organizing principle.
Jim: In fact, I was giving some advice to a young woman recently, I currently am on a Facebook sabbatical where I take six months a year off, every year, don’t do Facebook. And she was lamenting the crud of Facebook, and I said, “Yeah, the open public Facebook is kind of cruddy, but there’s a tremendous amount of good stuff going on in groups of various sorts.” And groups might be analogous to your experience.
Bret: I agree, except for one thing.
Jim: Which is?
Bret: You said that, “People grouped around some idea who may tend to agree.” And the funny thing about my followers is that my guess would be that the vast majority of them disagree with me on most of the things that are typically flashpoints. In other words, I know that my audience leans slightly right; I am far to the left.
Bret: So I’m seeing this generosity of spirit, and this nuance amongst people who would not ordinarily be my allies. And when I have seen these flare ups, it has been a small number of people, and it has been over certain topics in which, I think, nuance is … I won’t say impossible, but has been rendered very difficult.
Jim: Yeah, I’d forgotten the fact that, oddly, you have a relatively right wing followership. And here’s something that’s even odder, every once in a while your name will come up in a conversation out in the real world, real people. And I would say three people out of four think you are a right winger.
Jim: And I go, “What the fuck? I’ve known Bret for a while, and he is so far to the left, he makes Bernie look like a partner at Goldman Sachs.” Right?
Bret: That’s right.
Jim: The same is kind of true for me, I’m a radical son of a bitch. Go out look at the emancipationparty.org reforms which a bunch of us, including Bret, co-authored and we all signed off on them; it doesn’t get much more radical than that.
Jim: Yet, unfortunately, today’s left has become very strange. If you don’t buy off every jot and tittle of their law, then they want to excommunicate you. My own case, I think my three qualms about the left agenda … And I speak very freely about, is I’m a zealous defender of free speech. I believe in gun rights, I believe the First Amendment, free speech, is defended by the Second Amendment, which is gun rights.
Jim: And I have qualms about extreme versions of multiculturalism. I believe multiculturalism should be tolerated as it always has in America, but not encouraged. We’ve always had the Amish, the Hutterites, the Hasids, etc. But in general, most immigrant groups have assimilated, and melted into the American melting pot, which is supposedly a bad thing to say these days.
Jim: So those are my three sins against leftism, and yet in the basic principles of trying to make life better for real working people to keep finance from cheating the regular person for having a tax system that rewards honest work, not rentier behavior; I’m farther left probably than you are, and isn’t it interesting how that works?
Bret: But I think I certainly remember meeting you, and you started out earlier in life fairly far to the right, and I certainly started out far to the left. And I think part of the reason that I think you and I get along so well is that, to the extent that we are radicals, it’s not because we want to be.
Bret: I think the point is this is a moment at which if you have understood the danger we are in, as you and I have understood it, then radical change is the only option; it’s never a good option, it’s a last resort; but the fact is, it’s better than going extinct. And so, in some sense, it’s not an ideological position, it is the only response to a crisis of a certain magnitude.
Bret: And we know that the basic values that make us patriotic Americans are shared … We might not put them in the same order, but we believe in them. And that it really doesn’t matter how we ended up as radicals, whether from the right or the left, it’s a rational response to a dire situation.
Jim: Yep, I think that’s a good way to put it. What do you think your offenses are that makes leftists think you’re a right winger?
Bret: Well it’s the oddest thing. But the left has a love hate relationship with Darwinism, and this is long standing. I think this is because, on the one hand, the left is traditionally the keepers of the scientific flame. That is to say, conservatism on the right surrounding religious beliefs has resulted in the left having custodianship over enlightenment values; at least traditionally.
Bret: On the other hand Darwinism, itself, opens very uncomfortable questions about what human beings are, and what the meaning is of different levels of success that different populations have experienced. And so there is a long history of people on the left effectively trying to modulate how Darwinian our thinking becomes with respect to humans. And, in fact, much to my shock, I heard Richard Dawkins arguing against applying evolutionary theory to human history when I met with him on stage in Chicago last October; so this is a long standing concern.
Bret: Now my feeling having been down this road some distance is that, in the end, Darwinism is not a universal win for the left, but that the story that emerges from Darwinism is, in the end, positive for a progressive view of the world.
Bret: On the other hand, this is science and irrespective of whether Darwinism hands a win to the left or not, we have to go with what’s true; we don’t get to modulate the truth based on what we want to be right. It goes back to the human point about is versus ought. There’s a question of what is that is, the province of science, what we think about it and do about it is outside of those bounds. And as a Darwinist, I’m committed to figuring out what actually is, irrespective of its implications.
Bret: But what I encounter on the left, increasingly, is fear of even the most basic terminology that might be used to understand humans. So I’ve gotten in trouble in political spaces, for example, for even invoking the term genotype or phenotype with respect to humans, as if there was any controversy at all about whether these things apply.
Bret: You can also get in trouble these days for asserting that there is some significant biological difference between men and women, of all things. If you had told me 10 years ago that I would live to see a day in which there was any controversy surrounding that question at all, I would have said, “There isn’t one chance in a million.” But here we are.
Jim: Yeah there does seem to be a lot of real wacky doodle nonsense about this gender business these days and I, frankly, just tuned it out. I figure those people aren’t worth talking to, they’re goofy sons of bitches, and someday they’ll straighten out and, hopefully, most of them won’t reproduce; they’ll go away.
Jim: But I know in some areas that can be quite a pestilence, actually; I just try to avoid all that. The one I’ve seen the trigger … I won’t say I deal with a lot of evolutionary theoretical biologists at the Santa Fe Institute and other scientific institutes I’m associated with. And, frankly, most of those people are left wingers, and I’ve never seen any cognitive dissonance in them in thinking about evolutionary biology and progressive politics at all.
Jim: But where I have seen it … This came as quite a shock about two years ago. I happened to reference a work somebody had done on something, and they were someone who traveled under the title evolutionary psychologist; and talk about setting off an explosion. And, to your point about Pinker, it’s very weird.
Jim: Well you may disagree with any one person who flies under the flag of evolutionary psychology, clearly our psychology had to have evolved. I don’t remember who said it but the one of the more famous theoretical biologist said, “Nothing is knowable in biology except through the lens of evolution.” And that certainly has to include human psychology.
Bret: Yeah, that was Theodosius Dobzhansky.
Jim: Ah, you got it.
Bret: Nothing makes any sense in biology except in light of evolution. Yeah and really this ought to be uncontroversial. Surely the burden of proof is on anyone who imagines that human psychology has some other explanation. But the problem is this requires several weeks, perhaps, of exploration in order for people to understand that their right to determine the nature of their own existence is not up for debate in a discussion of that which created human psychology in a Darwinian context.
Bret: In other words, we are at a moment in history where we are not fit for this current environment, and we have to define a new path for how we’re going to interact. Certainly, the tools that we have inherited through a Darwinian process set the bounds of what is possible, but they do not tell us who to be, or how to act.
Bret: And so, in other words, I think what’s happening is people are imagining that if you’re saying that our psychology is Darwinian, the next thing that you’re going to do is you’re going to tell them what they may or may not think; and that’s simply not the case.
Jim: Yeah it’s totally fucked up. I mean it violates the is-ought principle. Starting to have these discussions with people, I say, “It’s certainly possible and, perhaps, even likely that ugly aspects of human nature, like xenophobia, and extreme patriarchal thinking may well have evolved biologically in the Pleistocene. But that doesn’t mean to say we have to put up with it, we now have the authority to reject the past, we are not driven by our genetic destiny.”
Bret: Not only do we have the ability to reject it, but the best hope we have of banishing it is to understand what its nature is so we can stop triggering it. This is the hardest message I think I have to deliver; it’s the one that is the most difficult to convey.
Bret: But as much as I am in awe daily of what evolution has produced … And really I’m the kind of guy who can go out into the backyard and look at a squirrel and marvel. So it’s not like I don’t get how impressive this stuff is, but the game that evolved creatures are playing is absolutely without a defense; it cannot be defended, it is both mind numbing and amoral.
Bret: We have an obligation to reject what evolution wants for us, and to reapply the tools it has handed us to something that is worthy of our ideal. So I really am not telling anybody that you are condemned to play out some evolutionary story; I think you’d be a fool to play out the evolutionary story. You have to choose a story that you can play out in light of the evolutionary constraints, but I am certainly advocating that people find something to do with their time that is more useful, more rewarding, and more defensible than spreading their genes far and wide.
Jim: Very well said. I’m going to go mine the transcript for this when it’s done, and I want to start using your language, because you said it a lot better than I did.
Bret: Well thank you.
Jim: That our genes are not our destiny, but guess what folks? They are our genes, right, you can’t deny that.
Jim: When we have the is-ought distinction, we have both the is and the ought. And to deny the is is not the think, fruitfully, about the ought.
Jim: It just strikes me as the strangest mindset that these people are in.
Bret: Well it’s sad because, in some sense, I mean maybe this is the bleeding heart liberal in me coming out. But, in some sense, I don’t think that the people … There are bad actors in the group that are making trouble along these lines. But most of the people who are trying to prevent us from having a proper scientific Darwinian discussion about human beings, they’re effectively panicking over fear of something that will be in that story that I don’t think is there.
Bret: And what they need, in fact, what I believe they are entitled to is a proper exploration of Darwinism that would allow them to understand just what an interesting and, for human beings, flexible landscape that is.
Bret: I mean, the fact is our genes gave us more freedom from genetic destiny than any other creature that has ever existed on earth. That’s really the punch line of the evolutionary story is that as much as we are not totally free, we are freer than any other creature has been.
Bret: And, I mean, if you just think about the distinction between, for example, the gender roles that people had to choose from when you were a young person versus now, I mean, this has been a radical transformation in the direction of liberation; and I think you and I would both agree that this is mostly for the good.
Jim: Yeah I would say within respect to homosexuals not having to live their life in the closet, it’s all good.
Bret: It’s all good.
Jim: What an inhumane way to have lived. And we know from the historical record that we have had a significant portion of homosexuals as part of the human condition at least for 2,500 years and people have been writing about it. To disenfranchise them as humans is disgusting, right?
Bret: It is and you could say something similar about women who, frankly, are now quite free to choose to do things that only men had access to. And when they do choose to do them at the same rate as men, we can discuss, and we can talk about the reasons that they might not. But the fact is, I see it is nothing but positive that somebody who is born female gets to decide what role they want to play on earth in a way that even two generations ago would have been almost unthinkable.
Jim: Yeah, I’ve been a close student of feminism for a long time, and one of the one of my quotes I hope will move beyond me is that when the scholars of 5,000 years from now look back at the 20th century, I suspect that they’re not going to be impressed by World War II, and nuclear weapons, or landing a man on the moon, or the internet. But what’s going to stand out in historical terms is that, for the first time in at least 12,000 years of history, and more likely 200,000 years of history, women in a small part of the world, the West, finally started to be able to be free of the patriarchy.
Jim: It’s a journey that’s still not done to this day, but by 1975 it felt to me like the corner had been turned, and that at least people who were thinking with a clear head knew that women should have every opportunity men should have. And if this actually does work its way through, and it seems like it is, that will be the most momentous occurrence in human social evolution in a very long time.
Bret: It’s spectacular. And, I mean, the other thing is, all right, there was a lot of discord along the way. But, frankly, as much as it doesn’t work perfectly yet, it’s amazing how well it works.
Bret: We have not seamlessly, but we have effectively figured our way to a much more honorable division of opportunities, and that’s something to be proud of. As Douglas Murray, though, points out in his recent book, The Madness of Crowds, there’s something odd about the tendency at the point that a coalition has arrived at approximately the goal they were seeking, the tendency of the train to continue and barrel through the station is notable; shall we say.
Jim: Yeah. And as much as I am a huge supporter, I think it’s one of the greatest things in history of the emancipation of women, it doesn’t mean that men and women are going to fill the same jobs in the same proportion.
Jim: I was talking to a very intelligent woman the other day, and she was saying, “Oh yes, I fully expect within 20 years there’ll be an equal number of men and women in the inner sanctum of writing artificial intelligence software.” And I had to tell her, “I doubt it.” I doubt the distinctions at that level of career choice are due, mostly today, to discrimination.
Jim: We know that women are 60 percent of college graduates, we know women are almost exactly equally represented in the elite professional programs: Harvard Law School, Wharton Business, 50/50 right on down the line. It would seem to be highly unusual if, somehow, the academic culture of computer science was so different as to produce a 10 or 15 percent result.
Jim: But I think this shows some light on this is the situation in Sweden. Sweden is, without a doubt, the society in human history that has gone the furthest, not all the way, there’s still issues we all know that in gender equality. And yet in Sweden, a higher percentage of engineers are men than in the United States. And in Sweden, a higher percentage of nurses are women than in the United States.
Jim: So it seems to, at least, throw some light to my mind on the fact that the inherent differences between men and women, which as we pointed out earlier, are real could well result in different choices about careers, and that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s something wrong with those institutions.
Bret: Sure it doesn’t mean anything of the kind. Nor do we know where those inherent differences between males and females live; they could be in the genes, but they don’t have to be. One of the things that is a very important realization that comes from recognizing that much of the work that the genome once did in our lineage has been offloaded to the cultural layer; but the cultural layer is still an evolutionary layer.
Bret: And so it’s quite possible for the differences in preference to be transmitted, culturally; that does not, however, mean that they are arbitrary. It is also worth pointing out that although it is true that some of the jobs in which the most glory is found are disproportionately inhabited by men. Men also inhabit many of the jobs in which there is disproportionate danger, or in which the work is particularly disgusting.
Bret: And so I’m not going to pretend to tell you that I know what a totally fair world would look like in terms of what people would choose, but I certainly would not expect a totally fair world to result in equal representation of men and women in all fields; that is a fairy tale.
Jim: I think I’m on board with you there. And I think, to your point … Who’d you say somebody Murray, Douglas Murray, was that the guy’s name?
Bret: Douglas Murray yep.
Jim: I think he … The way you describe it, it seems right to me that we arrived at the station but the train didn’t stop.
Jim: Just kind of accelerated into these post truth, posts reality based arguments of the sort that they’re all very aware of. It’s been a good conversation there, let’s move on to a couple smaller topics, we moved through quickly, and wrap up here in about 10 minutes, if that works for you?
Jim: One thing I picked up in some of the writings about you, and by you, is that despite being a self proclaimed atheist, you established a distinction between your beliefs and what are sometimes called the new atheists; guys like Pinker, Dawkins, Hitchens and … I’m going to argue in a minute unfairly, Dennett. Could you describe how it is you distinguish yourself from these new atheists and how?
Bret: Well this is interesting, actually, I mentioned earlier in the conversation that I had only a few times said something online that had resulted in an intemperate response from Twitter. And one of them, the most recent one, had to do with my use of the term, “New atheism.” Which resulted in an amazing amount of firepower coming back at me, including Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Michael Shermer, Jerry Coyne, and Neil Shubin, all those whom reacted.
Bret: None of them on the topic of atheism, though, they all came back at me on Darwinian topics, but all right after my invoking new atheism; and I’m quite sure that that was the trigger. The reason that my view on this is contentious is that the so called new atheist … And I am going to use that term. I believe Sam Harris uses that term, sometimes, so it has at least a certain degree of legitimacy.
Bret: The difference is, I believe that religion must have evolved, that the meaning of long standing religious traditions is a Darwinian meaning. Which does not imply that in our modern circumstances that these ancient stories are the guide to what we should be doing; that is likely to be true in some cases, but it is almost certainly not to be true in many others.
Bret: The fact is that Darwinian evolution does not prepare us for the environments in which we live, it prepares them for the environments from which we came, and we don’t live in the environments where religious traditions evolved.
Bret: So in some sense, even a recognition that these are a kind of ancient wisdom that has been encoded in a cultural package that is easily transmitted, even that recognition leaves us with the profound sense that we must now figure out what to do next, because those stories are not up to the challenges of the 21st century.
Bret: But what I’ve found is that … And I think there’s a historical path here. We, even 20 years ago, lived in a paradigm in which the fact of being an atheist made a person suspect in the eyes of the majority. There’s a question about whether or not an atheist, for example, could be elected to the highest office in the land, and new atheism arose in response to that paradigm. The problem is it drew the picture far too simply and quite unfairly to those who retain some connection to their religious past.
Bret: And what I’ve been saying is that religion shows all of the hallmarks of being a Darwinian adaptation and that, therefore, it is as deserving of a proper Darwinian treatment as an eye, or a wing, or an enzyme. That has inflamed many of the people at the forefront of the new atheist movement because, in some sense, I think they see it as coddling a perspective that is anti-scientific.
Bret: Ironically, many of the people in religious communities, who have felt quite beaten up by the new atheists, are responding positively to this message. They don’t agree with it because, of course, the first thing I say is, “I don’t believe anything supernatural is going on in the universe.” But simply to be taken seriously, and to be told, “I don’t believe that you are suffering from a delusion, or that you have a mental pathology, that you are, in fact, adhering to these traditions because they have a historical importance.” That has created an awful lot of goodwill amongst thinking believers of which there are quite a large number, and it has inflamed the new atheist community who I think sees it as a betrayal.
Bret: I’m hoping that, as things settle down, the new atheist community will come to understand that a, whether they like it or not, the argument is correct; evolution has produced religion. We know that that must be the case for reasons I’ve argued elsewhere, and that that being the case, if we attempt to move forward on the basis that religion is a mass delusion then, ultimately, what we are doing is we are undermining the credibility of evolutionary thinking, rather than advancing the enlightenment ball.
Jim: Well that’s interesting.
Jim: Well let me unpack all that. First I’ll point the audience to a very interesting book called, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennett, who is sometimes considered one of the new atheists.
Jim: But in that book, he actually goes through the evolutionary and adaptive arguments for religion and seems to by the fact that they did, indeed, evolve and they were indeed adaptive to provide group cohesion, the distinguish [usen 01:17:57] from them, etc.; so there is some tradition even amongst the new atheists in that perspective.
Jim: On the other hand, I would accept what you said is absolutely true; religion almost certainly evolved. In fact, one of my fun games when I meet a new anthropologist, and one of the fun things about our Santa Fe Institute community, we’ve always had a number of anthropologists and archeologists in it; seems kind of far afield, but it’s been the case.
Jim: I always ask them, “In your field of study, has there ever been the equivalent of this obnoxious 16 year old kid who challenged the religious orthodoxy with a question like, ‘Why don’t we do the rain dance and village A, not do the rain dance in village B, and see if there’s a difference in rain?'”
Jim: And every one of them, and most of them are atheists themselves have said, “Absolutely not. Such a thing would be utterly inconceivable in a pre modern person.” And so that’s led me to believe that the phenomenon known as religion has been ubiquitous as far back as we know. And for it to have been ubiquitous despite its high cost, it must have been adaptive in some fashion; so what you say is true.
Jim: However, this is where maybe I turned one step further around the bend, that doesn’t mean it’s not a mass delusion; I mean, it’s just not true. Thor does not cause thunder, Zeus does not throw lightning bolts, and every time science has made an incursion into the world of the metaphysical, science has always been right, the metaphysicians have always been wrong. So I think it’s perfectly reasonable to say it was evolutionary, it was adaptive, and it’s a mass delusion.
Bret: Is color a mass delusion?
Jim: Is color? Depends on what you’re talking about. We have our rods and we have our cones, and the … I forget which ones which. It’s the cones that-
Bret: Cones are for the color-
Jim: React the color.
Jim: All right, and so they fire under different frequencies. So we have, in our brains, we get different signals from the different colors; so I’d say colors are real, color is not a delusion.
Bret: No, but the experience of color it is … Well let’s put it this way, when we look at photos of Saturn, for example, sometimes you’ll see true color photos, and sometimes you’ll see photos in which the color wheel has been rotated to highlight things that are hard to see with the standard color; okay so we can say that’s false color.
Bret: But the fact is the experience of color that you have inside your mind, in fact, the idea that the room you are in is visible is a mass delusion of a kind. The room you’re in is also filled with radio waves, and they’re bouncing off things in particular ways, you just don’t happen to have a detector that organizes that information into some sort of subjective experience.
Bret: So you experience the room as empty radio waves, and full of color, and the color is a trick of the mind that allows you to quickly categorize objects as distinct from each other so that you know where one starts and the other stops. And my point is I’m not saying that it’s a delusion, I believe it is a useful heuristic, it is a heuristic that is not analytical, it is a heuristic that is experiential and allows you to navigate the world quickly without thinking about it.
Bret: But, certainly, somebody could portray it as a delusion in the same sense that we can portray belief systems that have made people successful as a delusion; but the connotation of the word delusion is unfair. The fact is, we’re talking about compendiums of adaptive beliefs, and to the extent that you want to take anything which is not a perfectly literal belief and say it’s a delusion, then you’re going to end up dragging in many of the models that we use in science too, which are also approximate.
Jim: I would say this was qualitatively different. They made specific claims about the nature of the universe, and they are never found to be true. The sun is at the center of the universe, argued from a metaphysical perspective; they were wrong, we were right.
Jim: And with respect to color, I mean, that falls into my area of cognitive study of consciousness, that’s what we call qualia, the subjective experience of color. And I would say that’s a completely different thing than a system of beliefs that operates in a different domain entirely; so I’m not sure that comparison was particularly apt.
Bret: Well but the question is where are you going to draw the line? How-
Bret: Literal does a scientific model have to be before you’re going to exclude it from the realm of delusion? I agree with you that there is a distinction between a claim about where the sun is relative to the earth, but you also have models in science that are approximate, and they get better over time.
Jim: Yeah, we say they’re approximate. The whole doctrine of science is that everything that we say we think is true today, we know is wrong in some detail, in some way. And that over time, experiment and data will, in some cases, fine tune what we believe and sometimes turn it completely on its head; it’s amazing. Einstein entirely turned on its head the Newtonian perspective of absolute space and time, and every good scientist knows that and knows it in their bones; religion is the exact opposite of that.
Bret: I think maybe you’re mis-hearing me in some sense then. Because it sounds to me like you think that there are circumstances in which you should prioritize factual claims coming from religion in spite of scientific evidence; that is not what I’m saying.
Bret: What I’m saying is that those claims have persisted because they have been effective. And so, for example, you have in the Old Testament, you have a repeated invocation of the concept of filth, basically shit, and the deity not wanting filth in certain places like in the middle of camp. Now that belief, that there is some force in the universe that cares where filth ends up is not literal. It is literally false, but it is metaphorically true in the sense that it prevents disease from spreading in camp.
Bret: So the fair comparison is for a population that exists thousands of years before the germ theory of disease, would you have them abandon a belief that a deity cares where filth ends up waiting for the enlightenment to deliver the tools to understand what microbes and pathogens are? Or would you have them utilize their shorthand belief for something in the universe cares where this stuff goes, waiting for a better, deeper understanding to supplant it when the evidence says it’s time to do that? That’s where I would fall out.
Jim: And I think that’s all right. In fact, the line I draw is Darwin. Here was a big question, where the hell did life come from? What are humans really? And before Darwin provided a good answer to that, believing some story about how it all happened seemed to be reasonable.
Jim: But that was a long time ago, that was over 150 years ago, and yet people are still clinging to these things. And it’s not to say they aren’t adaptive, and I absolutely agree they almost certainly were, because they’re expensive, and they’ve existed in essentially every culture that we know about. But I would put them in the same basket of xenophobia and patriarchy, things that probably were adaptive and useful in our past, especially in our plasticine past, and now it’s time to pinch them.
Bret: Ah, so I agree with you about it is time to pitch them, but I would say we have to qualify that. A, if we’re going to get people to listen to us about the necessity of moving towards a system in which we are governed by what it is we know, we have to understand what the hazards that come along with that are. In other words, there are some realms where we know a lot; chemistry, for example. There’s some realms where we are still pretty new at it; biology.
Bret: There are things about these compendiums of belief that we can’t know. We don’t necessarily know how these biblical texts, for example, have served the populations who believed in them and, therefore, we’ve got Chesterton’s fence issue with respect to throwing these things out.
Bret: So what I’m concerned about is that in hearing me say something other than the standard atheist line about, “Well, it’s time to walk away from these beliefs whatever they are, and fully embrace the enlightenment model.” Well I’m on board with the idea that we have to be governed by the enlightenment model, but I would caution that we are not yet in a position to simply say, “Here’s what’s true, and this is what it implies about how we should live.” We’re still coming to understand that.
Bret: Darwin may seem like he’s a very long time ago, but really it isn’t very long at all in terms of the time necessary to comprehend our situation. And our understanding of human evolution has actually lagged quite a bit behind our understanding of the evolution of other creatures, in part because human beings evolve in a fundamentally different way.
Bret: So I’m not hoping to coddle these beliefs, there are many reasons that we should look at the inherited wisdom that comes along with religious belief, and register it as a mismatch for the 21st century because it can’t help but be mismatched.
Bret: But if we are to make an argument about what must be done instead, that argument should be grounded as carefully as we can in the deepest science we have available and that says we have to take this stuff seriously as adaptive phenomenon, rather than delusion or pathology.
Jim: Yeah, see I would say it’s not pathology, but it’s delusion. But we’re not going to agree on this one. I think it sounds like I’m halfway in between the new atheists and you-
Jim: It certainly evolved, it was certainly adaptive, it wasn’t pathological and the plasticine probably wasn’t up until the time of Darwin. But now it’s that anyone who’s paying attention should say, “All right, time to pinch it.” Just like Marxist/Leninism might have been something worth thinking about until 1932, the purges.
Bret: Well I would say then it’s something like our insatiable desire for carbohydrates. That, obviously, has an easy to interpret meaning in a past environment, but in our current environment the fact that there’s no limit on how many carbohydrate molecules we can source at the supermarket in any given hour, means that we are in need of better, newer, more factually grounded wisdom.
Jim: I think that’s good. I think on that note, we’re going to wrap up. As I suspected, this was a phenomenal discussion all over the place, and both broad and deep. I hope our listeners will have enjoyed it.
Bret: I certainly enjoyed it. Thanks for having me on, Jim.
Jim: And it was great, we got to do this again.
Bret: All right, I look forward to it.
Jim: Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Muller at modernspacemusic.com.