04 September 2017

Let's take selection seriously

Things have to get copies of themselves into the future to persist.

So how do harmful things persist?

"People are idiots" lacks explanatory power; individuals are frequently idiots, large groups of people over generational time are not.

White supremacy -- the loot-apportioning system for loot that ran out a century ago -- and hierarchical racism persist even when the people doing the persisting are paying a high economic cost to do it.  This makes absolutely no economic sense, and people have been saying so for a very long time with increasingly strong empirical support.  Doesn't make a dent.

Then two things collided in my head.  One is that the moral-supremacy faction of rationalists makes a big deal about being "less wrong".  This is, well, silly; everybody is constantly wrong, often unaware.  The utility of rationalism isn't that it makes you less wrong, it that it gives you a systemic approach to apply to your circumstances.  You might be able to figure out why you are wrong.  Why the strong emphasis on not being wrong?

Two is that the Prosperity Gospel is directly descended from the assertion that chattel slavery was a positive good and a Christian duty.  I mean, it's also a scam, but an effective, lasting scam has to tap into things people would prefer were factual.  What are people getting out of the idea that they deserve to be rich?  It's not making them rich.

And here we get to something I've been wrong about; I have thought of authoritarian structures as supporting basic primate status, so that the higher in the structure you are, the closer you are to being able to hit who you want.  But it's not; that's a special case of whatever I want is correct.  Language means the contrapositive of whatever I want is correct becomes I never have to admit error.

Authority doesn't derive from never admitting you're wrong; never admitting you're wrong signals your authority.  The thing all these diverse scams of former glories are selling (besides the impunity to assault or kill those people in fulfilment of primate status desires) is for there to be a class of people to whom you never have to admit you're wrong.  And inside the narrative habit, never having to admit you're wrong means you have authority; you have significance, and you matter.

Actively terrible insecurity management, in that it swaps the mutable psychological for the immutable material?  Absolutely.  But equally obviously a hard habit to break, and where the online troll and the anti-Clinton misogynist running a newspaper alike get their maniacal insistence on admit you are bad.  If you admit you are bad, you are admitting error, and you lose your right to authority.  Facts aren't even secondary to this process; facts are near enough irrelevant.  (The utility of confession and the very strong feelings about it during the Reformation and Counter-reformation also become obvious.  As does the utter loathing of methodological naturalism, which asserts there is no utility in authority.)

So one fix is obviously "different stories, with different constructions of legitimacy"; maybe the exercise of social power doesn't properly derive from authoritas.  A stopgap is having the structures of authority assert that whatever you want isn't correct, but that's got failure modes.

A quick enough fix?  Much trickier.


Kai Jones said...

Marry me.

Graydon said...

+Kai Jones

Hurrah, it made sense!

mark said...

People tend to perceive their status in relative terms, not absolute.
An average british citizen of today is vastly more wealthy in terms of both resources and opportunities than a british citizen of the victorian age. And yet, the fact that the rest of the world caught up to them, robbing them of their perceived superiority, is rankling enough to trigger things like brexit.
That example, at least, is self inflicted. Many other examples exist where people, unable to see how to improve their own circumstances (or unwilling to do what is necessary for that), instead went about inflicting misery unto others.
"So that it may occur that the neighbour's cow dies" is an age old wish/excuse in my part of the world.

Graydon said...

People certainly do, and like colorimeters the built-in one is strictly good for relative measurement and if you want an absolute one you need to build it. That particular wetware bug is a response to a perceived measurement of status, though, and I was hoping I was talking about the thing being measured -- the choice of scale, if you will.

Icehawk said...

You should read Susan Blackmore on memetic selection. 'The Meme Machine' is the best overview.

Because you do need to think very carefully about levels of selection. Good for the individual, good for the group, good for the species, all differ - what is good for my genes is not exactly what is good for me, likewise what is good for the memes I possess.

Graydon said...

+Icehawk I shall give Susan Blackmore a try; thank you!

Levels of selection are very real, and absolutely not guaranteed to have a stable arrangement, at that. One of the things I wish was more widely known from the genetics side; environment includes the rest of your species, and how they're behaving affects how you're selected. (Of course, understanding this absolutely knocks any possible notion of genetic superiority on the head, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised it doesn't spread well as an idea.)