Self Determination & Ethnocultural Nation States

Self Determination & Ethnocultural Nation States

Modern people living in WEIRD cultures value consistency in the thoughts, behaviors, and actions of individuals. Joseph Henrich argues this is a strange phenomenon of WEIRD societies and that it hasn’t been a central feature of many cultures throughout history. One of the challenges of living in a society that deems you a hypocrite if you are not internally consistent on all issues is that we frequently run into paradoxical situations where we simultaneously uphold values that directly contradict. In the United States the most clear example is the contradiction between liberty and democratic governance. Democratic governance entails the creation of laws which reduce some personal liberties in order to defend other liberties.
 
 
Another example of paradoxes where our desires run into each other, as Steven Pinker notes in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, is between self-determination and the idea of an ethnocultural nation state. The challenges created when these two ideas bump into each other are fueling heated debates and worsening refugee crises across the globe.
 
 
In the Untied States, and many Western European countries, we believe in ideas of self-determination. We believe that individuals have the power to improve their own lives by working hard, making smart decisions, and – if necessary – by moving to a new place to start over. The history of the United States is exactly that, a history of people packing up and starting over somewhere new. Whether it was the pilgrims on the East Coast or the countless people who successively moved west, the United States is defined by the idea of self-determination and moving to areas of opportunity.
 
 
But what happens when the people who exercise this self-determination and move to areas of opportunity are culturally distinct from the areas to which they move? That is the question that Pinker explores in his book. Regarding the differences of the people and the landscape in a nation, Pinker writes, “unlike features of a landscape like trees and mountains, people have feet. They move to places where the opportunities are best, and soon invite their friends and relatives to join. This demographic mixing turns the landscape into a fractal, with minorities inside minorities inside minorities.”
 
 
This is where our paradox arises. We want people to be free. We want to uphold ideas of self-determination. We want people to be able to move to areas of opportunity and start new lives. We don’t want people to be stuck in one place, dependent on government assistance and charity. But, historically the United States and Western European nations have demonstrated that we don’t want ethnographic minorities to be the ones who are self-determinant in this way. We want our countries, our states, and our cities to remain ethnoculturally cohesive groups (I don’t support this view, but some modern political groups certainly do).
 
 
Not all people share this mindset, but many do, and it is a large component of populist movements in the United States and Europe. The choice that many people seem to advocate for is limiting self-determination of people who do not belong to the ethnocultural majority. A choice that is easily pointed at as racist and hypocritical. The other option for the people who dislike the ethnocultural change is to uphold self-determination, but to give up the idea of an ethnocultural state. To me this seems to be the more reasonable choice, but for many, the fear of losing their group identity is powerful.
 
 
Ultimately, what we should recognize is that our modern nation states, the political units we generally view as ethnocultural groups, conflict with ideas of self-determination. If we want to uphold self-determination and make it easier for people to shape their own lives, then we may end up losing ethnocultural nation states.
Does the Arc of Humanity Bend Toward Justice? - Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens - The Better Angles of our Nature Steven Pinker - Joseph Henrich the WEIRDest People in the world - Joe Abittan

Does the Arc of Humanity Bend Toward Justice?

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “there is absolutely no proof that human well-being inevitably improves as history rolls along. There is no proof that cultures that are beneficial to humans must inexorably succeed and spread, while less beneficial cultures must disappear.” Harari effectively argues that there is not a grand arc of humanity bending toward justice, that our cultures and civilizations around the globe are not necessarily moving toward being more cooperative and peaceful, that cultural evolution is not driving us toward better lives. If that is happening, then it is chance, Harari may argue, or we may be moving in a better direction, but that our path is not necessarily the most optimal for humans. Harari continues, “There is no proof that history is working for the benefit of humans because we lack an objective scale on which to measure such benefit.”
 
 
Around the same time that Harari published Sapiens, Steven Pinker published The Better Angles of Our Nature, and in that book he argues that the grand arc of humanity does bend toward justice, and that humans are becoming better and building better cultures over time. Pinker presents many objective scales on which humans are less violent, less impulsive, and are living better lives compared to humans of the past. Across multiple measures and various perspectives, humanity is improving and the history of humans does seem to be working toward our benefit. It may not feel that way, but cultures are becoming less violent and impulsive, and we can measure it in many ways.
 
 
In 2021, about 6 years after Sapiens was published, Joseph Henrich published The WEIRDest People in the World, in which he examines what cultural values contributed to western, educated, industrialized, rich, democracies, and how Europe and the Untied States became so WEIRD. He suggests that history could have taken different paths and that chance events could have moved history in different directions, but shows how certain cultural arrangements seem to have had different outcomes for humans, and how some cultural arrangements were more favorable and spread in an evolution-like manner. There may not have been a specific WEIRD end goal of this cultural evolution and one could argue that human culture lost some valuable aspects along the way, but Henrich’s argument seems to suggest that Harari is incorrect in stating that beneficial cultures for humans do not outcompete less beneficial cultures.
 
 
Harari may be correct if the evolution of humanity moves in a similar direction to the evolution of chickens. Chickens are some of the most abundant living things on the planet. There are more chickens alive than humans. What  they did to become so evolutionarily prosperous was become incredibly valuable to humans as a food source. However, this evolutionary success in terms of overall numbers is not good for individual chickens. Their lives are short and brutal. Their species population has exploded at the cost of the individual chicken’s life quality deteriorating. If this is the ultimate fate of humans, then Harari may be correct, human evolution does not move in a direction that makes the most out of life and existence.
 
 
However, that doesn’t seem to be where our species is headed. Birth rates globally are declining. While humans face great challenges with climate change and technological development we certainly don’t seem to be heading toward a world of more and more humans with ever less enjoyable lives. And Harari is incorrect in saying that we cannot find a universal measurement with which we can evaluate human progress. We fight fewer wars, kill each other less, and are less violent toward others, as Pinker demonstrates. By all measures (possibly with the exception of happiness measures from physically dominant 25 year-old males who want to fight everyone) this is an objectively good thing. Additionally, Henrich demonstrates that cultural factors which favored increasing trust with strangers, as opposed to only being able to trust family clans, favored a more civilized and peaceful society, thus outcompeting less beneficial cultural arrangements.
 
 
In short, both Pinker and Henrich provide examples which refute this post’s opening quotes from Harari. The arc of humanity does seem to bend toward justice and human cultures do seem to evolve in a direction that is better for humans over time, even if that evolution is slow, more complex than we fully understand, and not necessarily the most optimal pathway of all possible pathways. 
Money is the Root of all Large Scale Social Cooperation

Money is the Root of all Large Scale Social Cooperation

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “for thousands of years, philosophers, thinkers, and prophets have besmirched money and called it the root of all evil. Be that as it may, money is also the apogee of human tolerance.” Calling money evil is shortsighted. Even saying the pursuit of money is evil is shortsighted. The reality is that humans evolved in small tribal groups where mates were not evenly distributed. Social status and power were important factors in who was able to mate and pass their genes along to the next generation. For ancient hunter-gatherer tribes this often meant that the most physically dominant, the most well connected socially, or those who rose to the highest social status by other means became the person to pass their genes along. The key was accumulating social status and demonstrating status so that everyone knew about it. We can do that today with money, but we can also accumulate wealth, power, and prestige and signal those things through means other than money. Harari calls this out in his book and suggests that money has actually had much more important values throughout the human experience than just serving as the root of all evil as men try to compete for status and power.

Harari continues, “money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs, and social habits. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age, or sexual orientation.” Money enables human trust and cooperation at a grand scale. As Joseph Henrich explains in The WEIRDest People in the World, human tribes broke away from family, clan, and guild centric groups in part through trust that money could build across groups. There was of course much more to the story, but currencies enabled cooperation, trust, and coordination among humans at a large scale, something that other institutions had difficulty accomplishing.

Today people complain about companies and corporations pandering to certain groups or messaging and marketing their goods and services in ways that reinforce what is often called identity politics. The reality is that businesses need to be profitable to survive, and that means they need to convince people to purchase their products and services or shop in their stores. Money and currencies can flow between people of differing demographics and ideologies, allowing for cooperation where none would exist before. Messaging and signaling to people that they should spend their money in a certain way is not an evil, but is a demonstration of tolerance and acceptance. Rather than an evil, money and currency pushes a more accepting stance, even if that means that companies are slow to denounce clearly objectionable people and beliefs and slow to push for needed reforms and innovations. I think it is fair to argue that has more of a moderating effect, limiting the extreme and irrational rejection of some groups in an attempt to sell to the general middle or in a willingness to lose the fringes to remain more in the middle of opinions and beliefs generally. In the end, money, as corporations demonstrate, builds more trust and cooperation among people with different identities and ideologies than would otherwise exist.

Ultimately, money is the root of all large scale cooperation, but not necessarily the root of all evil. It is a neutral tool that has encouraged less discriminatory and biased stances at the same time that is has been a means for signaling dominance and status. Without money we likely couldn’t exist as a global species that interacts and cooperates peacefully a majority of the time.

Hierarchies that Disavow Fictional Origins - Joseph Henrich - The WEIRDest People in The World - Yuval Noah Harari - Sapiens - Joe Abittan

Hierarchies that Disavow Fictional Origins

In Joseph Henrich’s recent book The WEIRDest People in the World he discusses a study he performed where he offered rural tribal people in South America a choice between getting a spice block today, or two spice blocks at a later time. This type of delayed gratitude study is common, but what was uncommon was Henrich’s subject. Most delayed gratification studies are conducted in WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) societies and provide insights about who is going to be successful as an investor, in going to college, or generally in being less impulsive throughout life.
 
 
In Henrich’s study, tribal people living with little contact with people from more WEIRD regions of South America were less likely to take more spice blocks tomorrow compared to one spice block today. However, Henrich argues this was not due to an inability to delay gratification, an inability to think about the future, or some sort of personal shortcoming that has left people in rural areas stuck behind people in WEIRD areas. The reason, Henrich argues, that people in rural areas were not willing to delay gratification was that the institutions of their tribes didn’t provide any real incentive for them to do so. The individuals Henrich studied lived in communities where it was expected that surplus resources would be shared back with the larger tribe. The individuals themselves were not delaying their own gratification, they were simply choosing to accept one spice block they could use today, rather than accept a surplus tomorrow that they would be expected to share with the rest of their tribe later.
 
 
I like this anecdote because it shows that sometimes we reach wrong conclusions. Sometimes we assume we know what it means for someone to behave a certain way, but we fail to recognize all of the complex incentives and motivations that may be driving the person’s behavior. We often fall back on relatively simple and reductive explanations. The people in rural villages are “backward” because they cannot delay gratification and that is necessary to catch up with WEIRD societies. People in poverty are poor because they are lazy and don’t work. Rich people got to where they are by making smart choices and working hard. Each of these examples is overly simplistic, and possibly wrong. They are also all examples that can be, and have been, used to justify hierarchies that are ultimately based on little more than imagination.
 
 
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “it is an iron rule of history that every imagined hierarchy disavows its fictional origins and claims to be natural and inevitable.” Kings in Medieval Europe argued that they were naturally and divinely chosen to lead their peoples. Slave owners in the American Antebellum South argued that they were naturally superior to their slaves. Hitler argued that the Aryan race was naturally superior to all others. The rich today, in basically any country, argue that they are naturally superior (or more deserving of their wealth and fortune) than poor people. But in each case, the hierarchy is imagined. No one wants to admit that they are unfairly at an advantage, that they have more resources, leisure, power, or wealth than others simply by chance or at least partly due to some amount of random luck in success.
 
 
As Henrich’s study shows, wealth disparities don’t have to be considered “natural.” In the tribal villages he studied, village elders were the leaders who made decisions regarding resources. There were no individuals or households that had dramatically more resources than anyone else. Households and individuals responded to the incentives of the system accordingly. In the United States, we respect our elders, but don’t place them in leadership positions just because they are old and wise. We have institutions and systems in place that encourage individual accumulation of resources, and we stash our old people in storage in retirement homes – basically the opposite system of the tribe that Henrich studied. The institutions, cultures, and incentives around us matter a lot, and they determine what we find natural. We often ignore those factors, however, when we think about the hierarchies in place within our society, and chose to disavow the fictional origins of our hierarchies and believe that they reflect a natural and unavoidable aspect of humanity. 
Thoughts on Monogamy - Evolutionary Psychology & Becoming WEIRD

Thoughts on Monogamy – Evolutionary Psychology & Becoming WEIRD

Monogamy doesn’t seem to be the natural way for humans to live. Very few species mate with a single partner for life, and while humans in most parts of the world do, it is often not done well. Romantic affairs are the driving plot device in more books and movies than any of us can count. In the real world, we know plenty of people who have cheated on spouses or significant others, or been on the other side of the cheating. Numerous TV show hosts have made a living  by revealing the results of paternity tests.
Yuval Noah Harari makes a suggestion in his book Sapiens that monogamy is so hard for humans today because most of human evolution was not focused on monogamous relationships. Nuclear families are a relatively recent invention. For most of human history, we lived in small social tribes, and raising a child wasn’t the responsibility of two parents who who married and stayed together for the rest of their lives. In some instances, tribes actively practiced fatherhood rituals that were the direct opposite of monogamy. Harari writes,
“The proponents of this ancient commune theory argue that frequent infidelities that characterize modern marriages, and the high rates of divorce, not to mention the cornucopia of psychological complexes from which both children and adults suffer, all result from forcing humans to live in nuclear families and monogamous relationships that are incompatible with our biological software.” Harari describes the ancient commune theory mentioned in the quote as a theory that people in small tribes didn’t understand that a single man’s sperm fertilized an egg. It was not clearly understood that only one person sired a child, and in some tribes women would actively haved sex with multiple men, even throughout a pregnancy, so that her child would gain the qualities of all the men.
When I first read this quote from Harari it made me question whether modern monogamous marriages were really the best thing for humans.  If it contradicted our biology so much, I wondered why we kept it around, especially if it caused so many psychological, social, and emotional problems for so many people.
Joseph Henrich’s book The WEIRDest People in the World, helped me understand why monogamous institutions have become so useful in our modern world, despite the costs that Harari mentions and the incompatibility of monogamy with our evolutionary psychology. When societies do not have a system of single pair bonding, the highest status men tend to accumulate more females to exclusively marry. Regardless as to whether the women want to have sex with many men and partner with them, they often find that it is best for them to stick with just the one highest status man (possibly the wealthiest, strongest, or most politically connected man) for the best chance to raise their children. Pairing with a high status man who already has two or three other wives can often be more advantageous for a woman than pairing with the fourth most high status man, especially as women are pushed toward men further down the status ladder – as happens in strict monogamous societies.
As high status men accumulate more women who exclusively partner with them, even though the man doesn’t exclusively partner with the women, then lower status men do not find a partner. Single men who cannot get a partner are more likely to take large risks and gambles to try to move up the social ladder. They have more testosterone, because married men have a decrease in  testosterone, and they have less reason to invest in the future. Henrich argues that policies which pushed monogamy and broke up polygamy were a driving factor in what made the West WEIRD – Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Monogamous societies help ensure more men are able to find a partner, decreasing the number of single men without prospects for getting married or having children. This  gave more men a reason to invest in the future and improve their behavior and cooperation with others.
Our monogamous relationships may not be in line with our biology, but they have encouraged a more even distribution of male and female partners, and have helped create more stable societies. The relationships are hard, but at least recently have been a driving force toward WEIRD progress and development. The cost of monogamy that stem from a reproductive and sexual system mismatched to our evolution and biology don’t outweigh the benefits of a more stable, peaceful, and fruitful society.
Visual Versus Olfactory

Visual Versus Olfactory

I like to remind myself that I don’t experience the world around me the same way that my dog experiences the world. One of the biggest differences for us is that as a human I primarily experience the world by picking up on visual cues, whereas my dog primarily experiences the world through olfactory cues. My smelling ability isn’t very good, but my vision is pretty great. My dog’s vision isn’t very good, but her smelling is phenomenal. “Humans are better equipped for sight than for smell,” writes Mary Roach in Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, “We process visual input ten times faster than olfactory.”
While we can smell, hear, and sense pressure changes on our skin, it is primarily our eyesight that helps us perceive and move about our world. We gain more information from looking at something than we do from smelling, tasting, and even feeling that same thing. That is why so much of our art is visual, why we paint our homes and cars, and why movies and videogames are able to keep our attention so well. Our brains pick up on and process visual stimuli much quicker than other stimuli.
In the human brain, a huge amount of space is dedicated to visual processing. Much more of our brains matter is dedicated to visual processing than olfactory processing, as Roach’s quote above indicates. This is why our brains are so much quicker at decoding and deciphering visual stimuli. In other animals, such as my dog, the part of the brain dedicated to visual processing is not as large relative to other brain regions. My dog has more brain space dedicated to olfactory processing than visual processing, relative to my brain, and thus perceives the world acting on different primary stimuli.
In the book The WEIRDest People in the World, Joseph Henrich shares research which suggests that certain visual activities, like reading, change the structure of the brain. In the case of reading, the brain space dedicated to processing visual symbols grows as one reads more and the brain tends to give up space related to facial recognition. We get better at reading quickly, but worse at remembering faces.  In Gulp, Roach explains that this kind of process is likely taking place very early on in childhood development. She quotes a scientist who she interviewed that explains that parents of infants go out of their way to label and identify objects that can be visually observed, but parents do not go out of their way to label sounds, smells, or other stimuli. We can spend hours identifying and labeling the tiny differences that we can observe in everything from different species of bugs to 1000 piece puzzles, but we don’t often spend a lot of time differentiating between all the aromas in the smell of coffee, all the different flavors in a slice of chocolate cake, or all the different sounds in an orchestra. In these instances, we take all the different components and experience them as one, unless we train to identify all the different components.
Our visual processing is truly impressive, but it is worth recognizing how much we rely on what we can see, and why. The world is a lot bigger than just what our minds can process from the visual information that we take in. Remembering how much of our brain is dedicated to visual processing can hep us better contextualize our experiences of the world and recognize when we are being overly biased toward visual information. Malcolm Gladwell’s final podcast of his most recent season, all about the power and potential of dogs’ olfactory processing, is a great reminder of why we shouldn’t be too biased toward what we can see.
Polygamy, Eviction, & Community Investment

Polygamy, Eviction, & Community Investment

In The WEIRDest People in the World Joseph Henrich argues that ending polygamous marriage helped strengthen people’s sense of community by allowing more men to father children and have a reason to invest in the future. His argument is that in polygamous societies the highest status men attract multiple wives, making it harder for lower status men to get married and have children. Without prospects for a wife or family, these men become more transient, are more willing to take risks, and are less committed to any single place or community. Only allowing one wife per high status man means that lower status men can get married, have children, and find a reason to invest in their communities.
This idea from Henrich supports an argument made by Matthew Desmond in his book Evicted. Not writing about marriage and family policy, but instead about housing policy, Desmond also argues that transient individuals with no future prospects harm the development of community. He writes, “neighbors who cooperate with and trust one another can make their streets safer and more prosperous. But that takes time. Efforts to establish local cohesion and community investment are thwarted in neighborhoods with high turnover rates. In this way, eviction can unravel the fabric of a community.” 
Community requires long-term relationships, investments in people and places, and a commitment to the future. Henrich argues that giving men the opportunity to get married and build families provides these community pre-requisites. Desmond argues that the American system of evictions undermines these requirements. I think that looking at these two arguments together is interesting, and reinforces both.
Low-income tenants who face eviction, whether men or women, lack community and the benefits it provides. Their transient nature in places makes it hard for them to invest in relationships and doesn’t give them hope that the place they live can be better in the future.  They underinvest in the places they live, hurting the community for themselves and others. Single men in polygamous societies are similar. They can’t find a wife and engage in the community in a complete way, and also disinvest from the community, harming community growth and safety for everyone.
What is important to recognize is that community requires people with a commitment to a place and reason to invest in growth and development. Individuals need to feel that they are in a place where they can achieve their desires and where they feel they can be socially accepted to connect with others. When people do, they can create real communities that help make life better for everyone. When they don’t they can create problems and havoc that holds communities back.