Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Neoteny, Geeks, and Auto-domestication

First things first, read these two blog posts on cat domestication and dog domestication, respectively. There’s a lot of great information in them. Note, but don’t get hung up on, the slight hints of post-modern Internet pidgin used occasionally in both of them, especially the all-caps portion of the intro to the dog post. I’ll circle back to language later in this post, but for the time being it’s worth noting that the author (who is a talented writer in both Standard Modern English and Internet Pidgin1) sprinkles the essays with references to “doges”, occasionally uses the faux-French “ze” instead of “the”, etc.

Now not knowing too much about animal domestication, both of these essays straight up blew my mind. The notion I found most interesting, though, was that of neoteny as a primary mechanism for domestication. Neoteny is the retention into adulthood of juvenile traits. To quote the post on cat domestication:

“There is another big goddamn difference when it comes to meows, too- wildcats will meow as kittens but hardly EVER meow as adults, whereas domestic cats if you hadn’t noticed meow all the goddamn time and never shut up. They have retained the kittenish behavior of meowing into adulthood (similar to the way that dogs retain the wolf puppy behavior of barking into adulthood). This retention of a juvenile trait is known as neoteny and it’s pretty common among domestic animals, particularly pets. You want humans to love you and care for you? BE A BABY FOREVER

Cats have a lot of other neotonic behaviors, like kneading (aka the thing kittens will do to mom’s belly to stimulate more milk production) and high levels of playfulness[.]”

This idea that neoteny can be adaptive in cases of domestication is interesting, because it occurred to me while reading the post that there’s another sort of creature that I interact with that is also extremely neotonic. Geeks.

Look at the two pictures below2 3. One of them is a play-oriented kid’s daycare, the other is a tech office:

Copyright  Ab Rogers Design

Copyright camenzind evolution

If I were to photoshop out the playing children in the first photo, do you think you’d be able to tell the two apart? How long would it take? If the only clues you had to go on in the two photos were primary colors and a slide, how would you tell apart the natural environment of adult technical professionals from children at play?

It’s not accidental that nerds surround themselves with toys, tend to score high on measures of openness to new experience, and have play-oriented hobbies (like video games, board games, ultimate frisbee, etc.) I suspect that in ambiguous, cerebral professions, neoteny might be a strong advantage.

But first, look at some of the other ways in which geek neoteny expresses itself.

Geek speech is extremely playful and inventive. Geeks tend to love word-play and neologism and have built not one, but several overlapping and mutually integrated pidgin languages.4 This sort of perpetual re-invention of speech is unusual in adults, but found commonly in teens and pre-teens.

Geeks tend to be socially oblivious to varying degrees, many of them intentionally so. Most geeks fail to see the point of social niceties and tend to be much more blunt and artless than their ages would suggest. Most older geeks never acquire truly adult social networks and don’t seem to develop the desire for family building. Those geeks I know that have kids tend to treat their children more like peers than the non-geeks I know.

The same guilelessness that marks geeks as having child-like social sensibilities can also itself be a social asset. Geeks are famously low on social skills, partially because of genes, partially because past times like reading, gaming, and coding, don’t give one a chance to develop those skills. In my experience, it’s very common for geeks to go from being strangers to acting like very close friends with someone, based largely on only shared interests. In the absence of practiced, developed social skills, child-like enthusiasm and guilelessness can lead to remarkably thriving and stable communities around common interests. (It’s rare, in my experience, for nerds to have friends with drastically different interests. Regular adults will usually have several such friends and can have interesting and meaningful conversations about topics which are outside the areas of their interest and expertise. This is a characteristic that very few geeks have.)5 And while geek friendships are every bit as awkward as individual geek social awkwardness would suggest, these intense, childlike passions give geeks an avenue to build friendships that many have a hard time building with socialization alone.

More generally, geeks tend to display the sort of wonderment, obsessive passion, openness to new experiences, and playful orientation towards the world that one more commonly associates with children than with adults.

All of this leads me to a hypothesis: this neoteny is going to help the geeks conquer the world. While brain plasticity is a real thing that declines over time, it doesn’t decline at a steady rate and can be reversed. It’s well established that people with active minds and varied habits maintain neuroplasticity better than those with less stimulation. So a group of people who conscientiously stay childlike, with varied interests and an extreme openness to new experiences well into their adult lives might have a decided intellectual advantage over those who don’t, as they adapt to new technologies and new trends. This would account for the many middle-age nerds and programmers who have stayed completely up to date on the sources of culture, eagerly adopting modern social media and self-curated news sources like Reddit. The simple neoteny of being enthusiastic about new experiences and viewing the world as a creative object of play makes one not just resilient to technological and social change, it makes one thrive on it. It makes geeks, to use a term from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, anti-fragile.

Just as neoteny in dogs and cats helped them to adapt the sorts of neural machinery they needed to be integrated into our families6, geekdom might be a memetically advantageous way to preserve neuroplasticity and intellectual curiosity long past the adolescent period in which it traditionally began to disappear.7

So in a way, geekdom is an unintended exercise in self-domestication. Geeks seem to stumbled onto a well-established evolutionary pattern, neoteny, that often produces excellent results in situations divorced from the evolutionary pressure of brutal, violent nature. In the case of geeks, this auto-domestication appears to be successful because of the enhanced neuroplasticity and openness to new ideas it affords them, which is a huge advantage in an environment in which keeping up with evolutionary change can be incredibly adaptive.

As with dogs and cats, it brought with it a variety of other side effects, some positive and some negative, that make for a very particular memetype. Just as cats and dogs are reliably and noticeably different from their wild or feral brethren in certain ways, so are geeks memetically different from your typical adult in well-understood, reproducible ways.

1 Which, contra many naysayers, can actually be extremely expressive if used correctly.

2 Copyright AB Rogers Design

3 Copyright camenzind evolution

4 Hacker slang, l33t, and Lolcat are three that spring to mind.

5 All of this might be true for other sub-cultures. Hipsters might have a strain of this going on, but I get the impression that that’s more conscious rebellion and that hipsters, for all my dislike of their smug self-absorption and self-conscious, intentional iconoclasm, due seem to be more “adult” than geeks, in the traditional sense of social maturity.

6 OMG THIS GIF So fucking brilliant on the part of the dog. I could write an entire essay about how this gif shattered my theory of mind when it comes to dogs.

7 This neoteny may also be way nerds my age seem to be seem to be avoiding the musical and artistic stagnation that previous generations fell pray to. It’s pretty common for baby boomers to still be listening to music from the 60s, but most nerds, even those older than me, seem to still be discovering new music. Non-geeks my age, however, seem to be slowly falling behind the times, with many of them still listening to the music that was popular when we were in high school and college.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Mencken!

In honor of the birthday of this blog’s Patron Saint, who would have been 133 today, I offer the following:

“All the quacks and cony-catchers now crowding the public trough at Washington seem to be agreed upon one thing, and one thing only. It is the doctrine that the capitalistic system is on its last legs, and will present give place to something nobler and more “scientific”. There is, of course, no truth in this doctrine whatsoever. It collides at every point with the known facts. There is not the slightest reason for believing that capitalism is in collapse, or that anything proposed by the current wizards would be any better…

We owe to [capitalism] almost everything that passes under the general name of civilization today. The extraordinary progress of the world since the Middle Ages has not been due to the mere expenditure of human energy, nor even to the flights of human genius, for men had worked hard since the remotest times, and some of them had been of surpassing intellect. No, it has been due to the accumulation of capital. That accumulation permitted labor to be organized economically and on a large scale and thus greatly enhanced its productiveness. It provided the machinery that gradually diminished human drudgery, and liberated the spirit of the worker, who had formerly been almost indistinguishable from a mule. Most of all, it made possible a longer and better preparation for work, so that every art and handicraft greatly widened its scope and range, and multitudes of new and highly complicated crafts came in.” H. L. Mencken, “Capitalism”, as reprinted in A Mencken Chrestomathy

On the Versatility of the Human Voice


The human voice has evolved over millions of years to be a versatile, extensible tool for general-purpose communication. Its facility covers everything from Mr. Thum’s brilliant vocalizations above, to the infinite variety of human linguistic expression. The pattern matching wetware we carry around in our skulls combined with this extremely flexible vocalization apparatus has given us everything from Shakespeare and Richard Hugo to Ellie Goulding and beatboxing.

My mother once espoused (and, I imagine, might still) the theory that what makes us quintessentially human is not just language, but storytelling. I don’t know that she’s right, but suspect she’s not wrong.

Anyone who has heard a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo understands that “storytelling” shouldn’t be narrowly considered. Tom Thum’s presentation tells a story, in its way. It moves from percussive braggadocio to a smoky, jazz-club vignette in the space of eleven minutes, and of the sounds Thum employs, “proper words” are the decided minority.

Whether or not it is the quintessence of humanity, this facility for narrative expression is inextricable from what makes us human, no matter what audible form it takes.

“Authenticity” as Conservatism

I was talking to my friend Bryan today about “authenticity” as expressed by hipsterism and punk rock culture. And it occurred to me that, in a way, such authenticity is deeply conservative. Per Jonathan Haidt’s work on moral foundations, conservatives are greatly concerned by both tradition and purity. This seems to me to be well expressed by hipsterism’s obsession with lost arts and crafts and punk rocks desperate revulsion for “selling out” and adulterating music with fame and fortune.

Every hipster who takes up blacksmithing or craft gin distilling is trying to preserve a tradition that they feel is at risk of being lost. That desire for preservation (if honest, which is a seperate question) is not so different from the protective adoration felt by Catholics or other old faiths for their traditions and rituals. One of the few conservative parts of my character is the love I have for the Catholic rituals of my youth.

Similarly, the punk rock ethos (as well-articulated by John Roderick in an infamous essay) is premised on the flawed idea that “selling out” irredeemably sullies one’s artistic life work. Of course, here, “selling out” means taking any positive step towards popular or commercial success. Punk rock culture is inherently nihilistic (in the life-denying sense of the term) in that it axiomatically assumes that anyone who makes it has polluted themselves and all their work. Cf. the tortuously negative morality of Born Again Christianity and this obsession for musical purity seems to me to be the epitome of ideological conservatism.

These are just some random thoughts, and I greatly welcome feedback. I’m interested how this conservative view of authenticity might contrast with the general garden-variety progressivism common to both hipsters and punks (though, admittedly, punk culture seems more politically anarchic and admitting of variation than does hipsterism). Any comments or points to further reading would be most welcome.

Epictetus on the Desire for Admiration

I. 21 – To those who would be admired

When a man has his proper station in life, he is not all agape for things beyond it. Man, what is it you want to have happen to you? As for myself, I am content if I exercise desire and aversion in accordance with nature, if I employ choice and refusal as my nature is, and similarly employ purpose and design and assent. Why, then, do you walk around in our presence as though you had swallowed a spit? “It has always been my wish that those who meet me should admire me and as they follow me should exclaim, ‘O the great philosopher!'” Who are those people by whom you wish to be admired? Are they not these about whom you are in the habit of saying that they are mad? What then? Do you wish to be admired by the mad?

Quotes and emphasis in the original, footnote omitted. From the W. A. Oldfather translation.

H. L. Mencken on the Moral Perils of Good Men

“Sin is a dangerous toy in the hands of the virtuous. It should be left to the congenitally sinful, who know when to play with it and when to let it alone. Run a boy through a Presbyterian Sunday-school and you must police him carefully all the rest of his life, for once he slips he is ready for anything.” -H. L. Mencken, “A Good Man Gone Wrong”, as reprinted in A Mencken Chrestomathy

Daniel Hannan on the Precautionary Principle

This is how you pass the ideological Turing test1

As someone who is neither a Reactionary nor a Progressive, I found this article an engaging, well-crafted overview of Reactionary philosophy. I strongly recommend that you read and, whilst reading it, keep in mind that the author is not a Reactionary. This author gives an exceptionally even-handed and well-crafted overview of Reactionary philosophy while not, himself, subscribing to it.

I think that the core of all philosophy and, indeed, of all human knowledge, is intellectual humility. I think that a corollary to this is that you should always be able to both fairly describe the best arguments against your own position and give an intellectually honest accounting of positions with which you disagree. The article linked about is the finest example of the latter endeavor that I have read in years. I strongly recommend you read it.

1 For terminology, vis. The idea, as pointed out by Caplan, is much older.

Of Barrel Shrouds, Unlocked Phones, and the Gell-Mann Amnesia

First, a video:

The article mentioned in the video above made the rounds of most of the popular gun blogs a month or so ago when it was written, so any firearms enthusiasts in the audience will probably have already read it. If you haven’t, though, I highly recommend you do.

I tend to stay out of online firearms debates for the intellectually selfish reason that they got boring for me a some time ago. This is because everyone arguing on the Internet is, as a rule, already as informed as they are going to permit themselves to be. At this point, arguing about guns on the Internet can only ever aspire to a frustrated argument about priors, and that’s the extremely unusual best case.

But I think that, wherever you fall on the gun debate, you can watch the video above and marvel at the stunning ignorance of the people attempting to ban “assault-style weapons”. And while I’m absolutely okay with people on the Internet not knowing what a barrel shroud is, to see our government servants trying to outlaw them out of pure ignorance is maddening.

But what’s particularly crazy-making is that this kind of ignorance isn’t the exception, but rather the rule in modern American governance. I would be willing to bet that of all the people involved with writing the currently proposed assault weapon ban, not a single one of them could accurately describe all of the features that it proscribes. No matter how you feel about the substance of the current law, that regulations are drafted under such ignorant conditions should make you sore afraid.

Because let’s face it, the second amendment may not be an issue you care about one way or the other, but even the most apolitical among us has something we care deeply about that the government is trying to regulate. And the ignorance at work in crafting this horrid ban on “assault weapons” isn’t limited to firearms issues. The same levels of ignorance are at play screwing up the regulatory regime around whatever issue it is you do care about, whether it’s educational policy, abortion rights, immigration reform, etc. etc. etc.

So why is this ignorance able to persist? Because most people only see it when exposed to it in the context of their own area of expertise or passion. If you know about firearms, you can look at the AWB and see it for the ignorant pandering that it is. But when the same people suggest an immigration reform bill that flatters your priors, suddenly you just assume that they know what they’re talking about.

Or, to use a more current example: I have a lot of friends in the tech industry who, being fairly typical, garden-variety American liberals, are completely in favor of an Assault Weapons Ban. It seems sensible and common-sensical to them, and they have a hard time understanding how anyone can disagree with them. As such, the proposed legislation seems on-point, well-crafted, and long overdue.

But present them with the fact that it is now illegal to decouple your cellphone from your provider in the United States without express carrier permission, and they will instantly rail against the stupidity and ignorance that went in to crafting the legislation that permitted that to happen. The same legislative bodies that they assumed were well-reasoning and well-informed about gun rights, are suddenly seen for the ignorant charlatans they are.

Of course the punch line is that all topical regulation is equally bad, it’s just bad in domain-specific ways that only the informed will see or care about.

This phenomenon isn’t novel or limited to government. The name for this effect is “Gell-Mann Amnesia”, named for the physicist Murray Gell-Mann and first articulated (as near as I can tell) by author Michael Crichton in his 2002 essay “Why Speculate?”. (Note: I can’t seem to find a copy of the original essay online any longer. If anyone does track down a copy, please drop me a link to it either by comment or by email.) Crichton pointed out that he and Gell-Mann often marveled at the stupidity of newspaper articles about the areas of their expertise. Such articles were often so wrong and confused as to completely reverse causal relationships (“wet streets cause rain” in Crichton’s words) or to be so muddled as to be completely non-sensical to someone in the know. Both men would then turn to an article outside their domain knowledge and read on in happy credulity.

In the context of newspapers, Gell-Mann Amnesia might lead to a bad broadsheet surviving a few months longer than it otherwise would. In the context of modern panarchic democracy, Gell-Mann Amnesia leads bad laws, curtailed freedoms, and a regulatory regime in which good people become felons because they own politically incorrect sheet metal or twiddle the wrong bits on their phone.

Matt Ridley on the Poverty of Self-Sufficiency

Just two minutes long and well worth watching. I can also highly recommend Matt Ridley’s book The Rational Optimist.

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Magic Blue Smoke

House Rules:

1.) Carry out your own dead.
2.) No opium smoking in the elevators.
3.) In Competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
4.) A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place.
4a.) Penalty one stroke.
5.) Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.
6.) Keep Calm and Kill It with Fire.
7.) Spammers will be fed to the Crabipede.