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Below Razib writes: Though militarily and politically the Song were a subpar dynasty, in terms of cultural and economic production they were exceptional. This is peripheral to Razib’s main point in the post, but it’s an intrinsically important question which to my knowledge has not been adequately discussed anywhere.

The weakness of the Sung was only relative — they gave the Mongols as tough a fight as anyone did anywhere, and it took the Mongols four or five decades to conquer South China. I think that the real story is that in North China and Mongolia between 900 AD and 1200 AD (starting with the Khitan Liao) there occurred a military revolution unprecedented anywhere in history. The first part consisted of hybrid steppe-sedentary societies developing hybrid armies combining the advantages of both types of military. Steppe cavalry were highly mobile and probably better disciplined and organized than any previous armies, while the sedentary areas solved the logistics problems nomad armies had always had, and also provided siege engines, infantry manpower, and various sorts of scribes, specialists and technicians.

The players were the Khitan Liao, the Jurchen Jin, the Tangut Xixia, the Karakhitan western Liao, the Khwarizmian Turko-Persians, and the Mongols themselves. But note that all of these have hyphenated nomad / sedentary names except the Mongols — it was the purest nomads who triumphed. What this means to me is that, besides the hybridization revolution, there also must have been some kind of cavalry revolution among the Mongols alone. I have a few ideas about what that might have been: I think that they were ascribable to Genghis Khan himself and consisted mostly of improvements in discipline, organization, and training, but there may also have been improvements in the way cavalry were used.

In any case, Mongolia was a military high-pressure zone during this whole era, even more than it always had been. Again and again defeated armies from this region fled to the west and south, often to set up new kingdoms there. The defeated Khitans from North China set up the Central Asian Karakhitai kingdom, which dominated the hybrid Turko-Persian Khwarizmian kingdom in Central Asia (which in turn dominated the Persian and Middle Eastern world as far as the borders of Arabia), but these Karakhitai later were overwhelmed by Naimans fleeing Genghis Khan. And when the Mongols defeated the whole lot of them, the fleeing remnants became a major force in the Levant, fighting for Islam against the crusaders. Even before the rise of the Mongols there had been a definite NE–>SW direction of military flow.

• Category: Science 
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Most scientists believe that only objective factors are real and try to eliminate all subjectivity from their explanations — subjectivity is seen primarily as a source of error. Economists are the most objective social scientists, and they customarily sneer at dumber so-called scientists who fail to reduce human behavior to hard facts.

When things are going well, that is. During times of prosperity economics is a hard science like physics. It’s only when things go badly that they kick the can over to psychology and reach for mental factors like “irrational exuberance” and “mental depression” so that they can blame other, stupider sciences for their failures. (Quantum physicists also reach desperately for The Mind at times, since after sixty or seventy years their data are still impossible to interpret.)

So here’s my explanation of the present Collapse of Western Civilization: amphetamines. The world of finance is a rather small one, populated entirely by supersmart, extremely aggressive and competitive men (mostly) who have to go at top speed twelve or more hours a day, day after day. How do they do it? Performance-enhancing drugs, that’s how: legally-prescribed amphetamines. (Cocaine is uncool, and so Eighties.)

And since finance controls the world, when the tweakers crash, the whole world crashes with them. Like a football team collapsing in the fourth quarter, the world has run out of beans. We’ve had our jag, and now we’re crashing. Not much fun.

In my small experience, amphetamines are very nice. The world becomes a happy place. You get smarter and have lots of energy, and you can keep on going indefinitely. Complex ideas seem simple and all of your ideas look good. The crash isn’t even that bad if you use in moderation. But amphetamines are not conducive to moderation.

A friend working in a major science research institute has told me in confidence that a psychologist had told him (also in confidence) that the majority of the researchers there were using amphetamines or something of that kind. Paul Erdos, one of the greatest mathematicians of our time and probably the most prolific, was famous for his reliance on amphetamines. Science magazine has recently suggested that we seriously look into the possibility that the use of amphetamines for performance enhancement should be medically authorized, allowing scientists to do openly what they’re already doing under the table.

Erdos always worked with collaborators, and maybe this is the reason for that. While it’s working, amphetamine only shows you the bright side of things. It doesn’t enhance your judgment, your capacity for self-criticism, or your awareness of problems. Maybe Erdos needed a ground man — someone to point at his work and say “You know, Paul, I think that you skipped about seventeen steps right there.”

The mathematics community is self-policing, but finance absolutely isn’t, at least in the short term. A rising tide raises all boats, and when things are going well a clever but foolhardy investor can keep winning for years. Furthermore, someone’s who’s already persuasive will be even more persuasive while in the grip of amphetamine-induced enthusiasm. Optimists who believe what they’re saying are the best con men, and speed gives them the sincere optimism they need. (Have Glassman and Hassett ever been pee tested?)

Negative thinking is necessary and good. The disseminated optimism of crowds is not to be trusted. If we’d had fewer people lighting candles and more people cursing the darkness, we wouldn’t be in this fix.

The crash phase of amphetamine psychosis is now before us.

• Category: Economics, Science • Tags: Civilization, Economics 
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I have published my own take on Jonah Goldberg’s “Liberal Fascism” here. Since GNXP is not a political site (and since many here are not in sympathy with my point of view) I will not publish the whole thing here, though I am willing to discuss it in comments.

UPDATE: Thanks, everyone. I didn’t expect agreement, and I found the discussions interesting. I’m sorry that they wandered into the abortion area, because abortion isn’t really my issue, but that was my fault.

• Category: Science 
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I’ve just self-published two books which might be of interest to a few people here. They mostly represent my literary side, one of them even being a book of poems I wrote 25+ years ago, but some might be interested in three sections of Substantific Marrow: “The Back Door of Europe” (on the Baltic-Black Sea corridor), “The State”, and “Love or Money”. Substantific Marrow can be bought for about $17, or $3.75 for an e-book. (YMMV because of state taxes and shipping costs).

More information here:

Books can be bought here:

By Christmas I should have a third book out, about philosophy, economics, and temporality. Sometime next year my book on Inner Eurasian history should be out; this book should be of interest to many people here. I’m going to be spending the next several years gathering and finishing up stuff I’ve been working on since about 1985.

• Category: Science 
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A few days ago David Boxenhorn wrote the following, apropos of atheism and religion:

But maybe “communal irrational behavior” is the heart of the matter and “a supernatural agent” is just a side show?

His point was that Communism, for example, has many of the traits of a religion, but without a supreme being , and his suggestion was that a non-theistic definition of “religion” which included Communism would be more useful than the theistic one normally used.

Like Razib, but probably more so, I am a “Chamberlain secularist” who does not expect religion ever to disappear. I think that the term “communal irrational behavior” shows where secularists miss the point. The assumption is that a.) the rational course of action can always be known (i.e., is always rationally decidable), and b.) all good things come from rational actions. I don’t think that either of these propositions is true. Rational decisionmaking is a good thing, but sometimes very weighty, life-and-death decisions are rationally undecidable. Furthermore, large innovations or intiiatives are often not rational at the time they are made — in most but not all cases, playing safe is the most rational choice. (The exceptions would deteriorating situations where traditional ways have become unviable.)

A lot of what is called “communal irrational behavior” I would instead call “social highstakes gambling”. If you cherrypick the disasters (the Branch Davidians, Jonestown, etc.) you have an open-and-shut case against belief. However, if you look at some of the successful social gambles in history (the 1688 Glorious Revolution in England, the adventurism or “total committment rationality” of classical Athens, the Polynesian colonization of the South Pacific, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Christianity) you’ll find that a lot of those people were pretty fucking nuts. The colonization of the South Pacific is my model: fair-sized groups of people gathered all of their belongings and set off on the open ocean toward a destination which they had no reason to believe even existed. Most of them were never heard from again, but the lucky ones colonized Hawaii and New Zealand.

The rationalist assumption is that reality is known, and that progress is grounded on reason. But at any given point, key aspects of reality are unknown, and all enterprises are gambles. The winner of a high-stakes gamble profits enormously, but the losers (the majority, probably the vast majority) are destroyed. Don’t these gambles sound like mutations? Most mutations are harmful, some are neutral, and a very small number are beneficial. I am suggesting a social-history version of Donald Campbell’s “evolutionary epistemology”: blind social variation and selective retention (or, in Gould’s words, proliferation and decimation.)

Social gambling tends to be even crazier than individual gambling, because the followers tend to believe the prophets without really understanding them, so that the leaders’ errors can often be often magnified. But sometimes long-shot gambles work. And (as can be seen with the Mormons and the Hasids, for example) the craziest fanatics are often meticulously rational in significant areas of their behavior, and valuable technical innovations which are part of their grand scheme. The very craziness of a religion increases the selection pressures, thus forcing cult members to improvise survival strategies which prudent moderates would not need. (From this point of view, the down side of religion would just be its cost. There’s no free lunch, but on the net, a successful religion is beneficial).

Religions are a leading component of the cultural part of gene-culture coevolution. Crazy religions are mutants, and most mutants die — often because they kill their followers. But we cannot assume that the religions which have survived were rational at the time of their foundation. New religions never are; at the beginning they are always enormous blind gambles.

I don’t practice any religion. I’m a naturalist and anti-supernaturalist in belief, and I raised my son as an atheist. But I don’t expect religion ever to disappear, and not merely because people are stupid. A public religion arbitrarily decides rationally undecidable questions and thereby makes group life possible. Religion also gives hope to people for whom there is rationally no hope — and obviously this is a very ambiguous and sometimes poisonous gift. But this ungrounded hopefulness sometimes also does motivate genuinely productive social initiatives or experiments.

• Category: Science 
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I have published several pieces on my other site recently which some people here might be interested in.

The multiculturalism piece would probably fit here, but it was already cross-posted at The Valve. The refutation of the existence of God (which got a link on Ophelia Butler’s secularist Butterflies and Wheels site) is probably a little too jokey for GNXP. The piece on Amartya Sen is perhaps of interest to those who were interested in my earlier piece here on ev-psych and econ. (Bonus: a piece on Tyler Cowen and economic rationality).

What is “culture” in multi-culturalism?

I doubt, therefore God does not exist.

Amartya Sen: Rationality and Freedom.

Add: Tyler Cowen on Economic Rationality

• Category: Science 
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Not by Genes Alone, Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd, eds., Chicago, 2005.
Moral sentiments and Material Interests, Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles, Robert Boyd, and Ernst Fehr, eds., MIT, 2005.

Moral sentiments and Material Interests is, from my point of view, an enormous advance on all the orthodox economics I’ve ever read. My primary complaint is “What took so long?” For decades now economics has been spreading disinformation, and it’s about time that they started looking at reality. (The ev psych ideas found in the Gintis book are more fully developed in Not by Genes Alone. I should note that both books include a lot of technical argument which I haven’t even touched upon. What I’ve written here is only a summary of the conclusions, written from the point of view of a non-biologist and a non-economist).

The book’s starting point is an empirical look at the actual economic behavior of individuals, in order to see whether it matches the rational-self-interest assumed by economic theory. It is found that it doesn’t, and the actual behavior observed is next interpreted in terms of evolutionary psychology. Finally, the political and social significance of these new observations is sketched.

The empirical studies are standard cash-incentive psych lab tests designed to find out where people actually stand on the altruism / self-interest scale. In general, the tests find that people behave more altruistically than they would if they decided according to rational self-interest. (The tests also find that the degree of altruism varies according to culture, and is not a universal).

The results of these experiments square with my own convictions, but I’ve always felt that this kind of artificial, low-payoff game-playing is of only moderate scientific value — there’s even some evidence that the authors themselves think this way. To me the real story is that there’s never been any evidence at all that economics’ assumption of individual economic rationality is valid, and a lot of evidence that it isn’t. The rationalizations found in Friedman’s Positive Economics have allowed economists to rely thoughtlessly on these unproven assumptions for about five decades, and if a few little experiments are required to convince them to drop this inaccurate and unproven default, that’s cool with me. But it’s a little like someone cherry-picking Bible verses to make their point to the Vatican.

The authors define three mechanisms leading to altruism and social cohesion: strong reciprocity, conformity, and “costly signaling”. These are made possible by innate dispositions evolved in two steps — simple reciprocity first at the early primate small group level, and the more complex behaviors next at the early human. Altogether they make possible genetic selection for altruism, via net fertility advantages for all members of organized social groups (not simply biological groups or kinship groups) which are successful because their members behave altruistically. Biological competition within the group is suppressed by non-innate social and cultural mechanisms, giving an advantage to members of the group on the average, but not to every individual. This way, with gene-culture coevolution and mutualism, there can be genetic selection for a degree of innate altruism in a way that there could not be without culture and society, which form a kind of artificial environment.

“Strong reciprocity” is what replaces “rational self-interest”. It consists of the weak reciprocity described by Axelrod (initial cooperation, continued until the partner defects) plus an additional altruistic propensity to punish defectors even if there’s no personal advantage in doing so. In a society of strong reciprocators (altruists both in giving and in punishment), defectors do not have an advantage, whereas in a society of non-punishing altruists, the defectors have an advantage which causes the defector gene to drive out the altruist gene.

Two other behaviors are mentioned. “Conformity” is a weaker principle explaining social uniformity in the absence of the threat of punishment, and mostly applies to cases in which there is no clearly-perceptible advantage or disadvantage for the individual, so he just does what everyone else does. “Costly signaling” only appears in one chapter, which uses the biological concept to explain generosity of the potlatch / largesse / big man type. To me these are less immediately interesting than strong reciprocity, though “costly signaling” is a step on the way toward defining a more complex heirarchal society extending beyond the face-to-face level.

A significant advantage of this book is that it describes a social world which, like the world observed and described by historians, has “multiple equilibria and tipping points” and is thus less stable and less predictable than the imaginary world of equilibrium economics.

In the final chapter Bowles and Gintis point out that local community is always grounded on a fundamental ethic of strong reciprocity. They describe it as a positive force which is usually wrongly maligned by the partisans of the market, the state, and elite culture. This brings them close to the communitarians, for whom the local community is a valid and necessary third leg of society, distinguishable (and sometimes at odds with) both pure market behavior and the state. (A lot of liberationist and libertarian ideology is hostile to the naive sorts of strong retribution that make small-group community possible).

The three innate principles described by these authors can be thought of as a ground for ethics, and the authors speak openly of “trust” and “fairness”. However, all actual ethics involves further cultural processing, beyond the innate foundation. For one example, one of the great advances making civilization possible was the suppression of vendetta and feud, which are completely natural developments of “strong reciprocity”. For another, the mechanisms of natural ethics described here work best at the face-to-face level. The description, much less the attainment, of fairness (the goal of strong reciprocity) within a large, complex, multi-level society is an extremely tricky and difficult task indeed. (The authors do touch on these questions, and they cite Fried’s Evolution of Political Society, which sketches a general view of the move toward complex society).

Anyway, after about fifty years, economics seems to be returning to the real world.

(Slightly revised Sept 29)


My post got a bit of attention from Donald Luskin:

If the nature of selfishness is more complicated that economics typically assumes, if it is indeed tied up in considerations of family, friends, nation, species — whatever — then let the science of economics try to adopt itself to those complexities.

I have trouble thinking of this as a useful addition to the theory of rationality. It reminds me of the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu’s humorous mysticism: “Yes, I’m selfish! But I’m selfish for the whole universe, not just for me!”

I also have a new piece up at

• Category: Science 
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The regulars here know me pretty well by now, but I’ll introduce myself anyway. My name is John Emerson, and I’ve been a commenter here for some time. Over the last few months I’ve made some long comments which really should have been posts, and finally I asked Razib for posting privileges. My own site is Idiocentrism; the most interesting page there for most people here would be my archive of writings on Eurasian history, especially those dealing with the Mongols, the nomads, and the steppe.

• Category: Science 
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Like Razib, I’m secular and an atheist, and this forces me to ask myself, “Why religion?” If religion is as false as it seems to be, why does it exist?

I have three answers. These are not exclusive but overlapping, and the fact that two of them are more or less mutually incompatible often leads to apparently paradoxical developments.

Religious belief can be either functional or dysfunctional, either from the social or from the individual point of view. The falsehood of a religion does not entail its harmfulness, and in fact the robustness of religious belief suggests that religion must be in some way, at least socially, more functional than not.

In different ways my three explanations of religious belief all center on “long shot” situations, where the chances of success by routine means are low or doubtful. (This squares with Malinowski: where routine non-magical methods work most of the time, the most superstitious tribesman will use them). In all cases they also involve choices which are probably not rational from the individual’s point of view, but are rational from the point of view of the species.

Thus, these forms of religion can be called altruistic. I’m not up to date on the evolutionary debate on innate altruism — innate dispositions which lead the organism to behave in a way which reduces his or her own personal evolutionary success, while enhancing the evolutionary success of the group (species or kingroup) to which he or she belongs. As I understand that’s been a hard case to make even with the help of kin altruism.

Perhaps the innate trait leading to altruistic behavior is not intrinsically altruistic, but is exapted for altruism within a learned, conventional, non-innate social context such as religion. Candidates for such innate dispositions might be those toward male bonding, submissiveness, and anger against outsiders.

My first two explanations of religion are familiar and have been given by Marx, Nietzsche, and many others. First, religion gives comfort to people whose actual situation in life is unendurable, or almost. Hope for an imaginary and unreal future paradoxically makes the painful present more bearable. This is the “opiate of the people” explanation, and is associated with exploitation, heirarchy, and domination.

Second, religion can motivate self-sacrifice, for example in war. In some sense this might be thought of as a version of the first, but the behaviors of the submissive peasant and the soldier are so different that I thought I’d list them separately. Just like the first case, this involves some degree of altruism: Religion tends to use promises about the afterlife to sugarcoat an earthly life which is hard to face rationally and is, in fact, a very bad deal.

My third point is by far the most interesting. New religions, crazy as they usually are, can be compared to mutations in biology. Even if most of them are harmful, some of them successfully move into new niches in the historical landscape. Thus, even though most new religions, like most new genes, are destructive or neutral, whatever bold, successful social innovations there are have often been religious in motivation. For most people conventional behavior and the status quo are the robust default choices except in the very worst situations, and in fact many people will follow the rules even if it literally kills them.

My favorite example of this is from Polynesia. Polynesia was settled during the Christian era by shiploads of families migrating with their pigs and their tools. Polynesians were great navigators, but the big discoveries — of New Zealand from Hawaii, for example — were made by people jumping off into the void, who could not know where they would land or whether there was any land there at all. The evidence I’ve seen suggests that these voyages were motivated by religious visions of an apocalyptic sort. Most such expeditions must have died miserably, but the ones who didn’t succeeded gloriously (settling Samoa, Hawaii, New Zealand, and so on.)

Thus new religions, like mutations, are high-risk high-stakes gambles.

My premise is that serious religious belief is never individually rational, leading as it does to self-sacrifice, submission to exploitation, and crazy gambles. I’ve thought of trying to describe the circumstances in which new religious beliefs are successful and socially rational (after the fact), but that isn’t at all easy.

The three variables I’ve figured out are: 1.) the worse-adapted conventional practice becomes, the more likely it is that a new religion will be an improvement. 2.) The more successful a conventional practice is, the more likely it is that people will be able to experiment, since they have more leisure and more surplus. 3.) If there’s a significantly more favorable niche accessible from the conventional niche, whichever innovator gets there first will have an advantage. (#1, #2, and #3 are completely independent, and #1 and #2 or more or less incompatible. I suspect that evolutionists have worked this kind of question out more systematically.)

I should also point out that religions of submission (#1) readily morph into religions of rebellion (for example, by promoting a minor deity or by revising the theogony.) This is historically observable and shouldn’t be thought of as problematic. In terms of my argument, anyone in condition #1 has no good choices: both submission or rebellion can lead to extreme misery, and seldom does either lead to happiness or success. For someone in these circumstances to flip from one desperate solution to the other is nothing strange.

In my opinion, the payoff of this piece is the suggestion that new religions, while irrational, are like mutations. Few of them succeed, but they are part of the cruel and bloody process of proliferation and decimation (variation and selective retention) which constitutes both evolution and history.

• Category: Science 
The “war hero” candidate buried information about POWs left behind in Vietnam.
Are elite university admissions based on meritocracy and diversity as claimed?
The sources of America’s immigration problems—and a possible solution