The Complexities of Society

The Complexities of Society

I have a hard time debating and arguing with friends about how to think about society. A large reason why is because, at best, I often find myself making the argument of, “well, maybe?”  Politics is a never ending attempt to answer the question of who gets what and when. We have scarce resources like money, roads and infrastructure, and influence and fame. These things are distributed across individuals with deliberate decisions and sometimes seemingly by random chance. Occasionally we step in to try to change these allocations, to provide greater rewards and incentives for those who pursue certain resources and goals over others, and punish those who deviate from courses we find appropriate. But figuring out how people will react to any given decision and figuring out which levers will lead to which outcomes is nearly impossible. I almost always find myself unsure exactly that the changes people advocate for will really have the desired impact or that the problem they identify is really caused by the root cause they suggest. I often find myself saying, “well, maybe” but having a hard time convincing others that their thoughts should be less certain.
 
 
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker discusses the complexities of society when writing about how hard it is to identify a single factor that has lead people to become less violent over time. Especially in WEIRD societies, there is a lot of evidence to demonstrate that people are less violent today than they used to be, but it is hard to point to a single (or even a few) key factor and explain how it (they) reduced human violence. As Pinker writes, “a society is an organic system that develops spontaneously, governed by myriad interactions and adjustments that no human mind can pretend to understand.”
 
 
The best social science experiments that we can develop and the best models from social science only manager to explain about 40% of the variance that we observe across societies. We cannot singularly point to racism, inequality, or the percent of high school graduates and understand a given social outcome. We can see correlations, but rarely do we see a correlation that explains anywhere close to 50% of the differences we observe between desired and undesired social outcomes. We are unable to point to a given factor (or even a handful of given factors) and confidently say that we have identified the most important or the clear driving factor(s) that determine(s) whether someone is a success or a failure, whether a society is peacefully democratic or violently autocratic, or whether a society’s economy will boom or bust.
 
 
This is why I am so frequently stuck with, “well, maybe,” as a response to so man of my friend’s arguments. When a friend or family member is convinced that people need to change one thing in order to make the world a better place I remember that the best social science models explain less than half the variance. So pointing to a single factor and claiming that the world would be dramatically better if we changed that factor doesn’t feel convincing to me. Maybe it would have an impact, but maybe it wouldn’t. The complexities of society prevent us from ever being certain that a single change or a single decision will ever have the intended outcome we expect or hope for.
Less Violence Correlates with Better Societies

Less Violence Correlates with Better Societies

In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker makes an argument that doesn’t appear to be correct at face value. He argues that humanity has become less violent over time and that our societies are following a progression toward less violence as we work toward specific societal goals. While it may feel like our society is constantly on the verge of a meltdown and while we may hear about violent murders, robberies, and attacks in the media, the reality is that humans and our society have become less violent. This is true if you take a long view of human history, going back thousands and perhaps even tens of thousands of years, and it is also true if you take a more modern look at society, looking back a century or even a couple decades. There are fluctuations year over year, but the general trend is downward.
 
 
In his book Pinker writes, “across time and space, the more peaceable societies also tend to be richer, healthier, better educated, better governed, more respectful of their women, and more likely to engage in trade.” Pinker acknowledges that each of these correlations are complex. It is hard to say that being less violent made a society richer, or that being better governed reduced a society’s levels of violence. None of these variables is easy to separate from the other. But it is clear that less violence is correlated with everything the areas Pinker highlights.
 
 
What is important to note is that these correlations reflect a better society that is more favorable to live within. If populations are mobile enough, you would expect people to move toward the more peaceable societies because they want to live in a richer, safer, healthier, and better governed society. Societies which lean into violence, or perhaps that have other negative qualities that cause greater levels of violence, will be less successful and worse off. Populations will want to leave those societies. They will not want to live within and support them. Cultural evolution doesn’t follow a specific path or goal, but we can expect people to want to live in places with the correlates from Pinker’s quote, and we can expect people to try to move toward those better societies. The feedback mechanisms are complex, so we can’t simply say that societies should be less violent for all these positive things to follow, but it does give us an insight into what matters and what societies should strive toward if they want to be successful relative to other societies.
Cultural Agglomeration

Cultural Agglomoration

During my undergraduate studies at the University of Nevada, Reno I had a Peninsular Medieval Literature class focused on early Spanish literature of the Iberian Peninsula. Today, the Iberian Peninsula contains two sovereign countries, and Spain contains four dominant sub-cultures. But in the past, the Peninsula had many different tribal cultures separated geographically and separated in terms of how they interacted with outsiders. Over time, through trade, conquest, and other means, the tribes coalesced to form the starting blocks that became Portugal, Spain, and the minor sub-cultures that exist within the countries.
 
 
This pattern of cultural agglomeration has been common throughout human history. At least since the Agrarian Revolution, living in larger tribes has been advantageous for humans. The evolution and growth of our brains and social institutions has created an environment that favors larger numbers. Consequentially, human societies and cultures have been on a pathway toward coalescence. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in his book Sapiens, “Over the millennia, small, simple cultures gradually coalesce into bigger and more complex civilizations, so that the world contains fewer and fewer mega-cultures, each of which is bigger and more complex.” Harari acknowledges that this is a generalization, and that even mega-cultures maintain sub-cultures and smaller segments that may break apart, but the trend seems to hold with dominant institutions taking root across the smaller sub-cultures.
 
 
Humans originally evolved within small tribes. The brains of our earliest ancestors did not have the capability to maintain large social groups, and cultural evolution had not provided humanity with institutions that could maintain large groups. The earliest humans, likely similar to ape groups of today, could only maintain social cohesion among so many members before the group broke apart. The evolution of Homo Sapiens set humanity on a new path where the human brain could support ever larger and more complex social organizations, ultimately favoring larger cultures and more complex cultural agglomeration for a host of reasons that are beyond the scope of this post.
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. 
Mass Cooperation Instincts

Mass Cooperation Instincts

The last few years in the United States have been a difficult time in terms of political disagreement. President Trump was an incredibly polarizing figure who clearly lied, made up a lot what he said, and was simply not a good president. Nevertheless, he had a huge number of supporters who liked his persona, liked that he praised their social groups, and supported him so strongly that they tried to prevent the government from certifying the election that Trump lost by rioting through the nation’s capital. The former President and those who supported him in such a fanatical manner represent a problem with human cooperation and evolution. Whether we like it or not, and whether we want to admit it or not, we still have tribal instincts that drive much of our behavior.
 
 
“The problem at the root of such calamities,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens, “is that humans evolved for millions of years in small bands of a few dozen individuals. The handful of millennia separating the Agricultural Revolution from the appearance of cities, kingdoms, and empires was not enough time to allow an instinct for mass cooperation to evolve.”
 
 
In the book, Harari explains that humans have been evolving for a few million years separate from apes and other close cousins. Homo Sapiens specifically, has only existed as a distinct species of human for a couple hundred thousand years. That is an incredibly long time on the scale of a human lifetime, but in terms of evolution, it is a very short time. For the couple hundred thousand years of the existence of homo sapiens, only about 70,000 years has passed since the very beginning of the Agricultural Revolution – perhaps about one third of the full time that homo sapiens has existed. Humans went from a relatively insignificant species that lived in small tribal bands to the most dominant force on the planet in less than 100,000 years. And as I stated, this is a long time in the life of a single human, but a blip in evolutionary time.
 
 
Such a fast ascent was made possible by our incredible brains and unsurpassed adaptability. But our quick ascent has not been perfect. We have not fully evolved in a way that helps us support the world we have built and the lives we now lead. As our recent political experience demonstrates, our minds still seem to be evolved to fit within small tribal bands, not within global populaces. It is easy to be altruistic among a small group of friends and to provide aid and assistance to those you personally know or to those individuals in front of you who need life saving help. It is harder to be supportive of people you differ from culturally and it is hard to find the will to aid people across the globe who are slowly dying from preventable causes. Cooperating at large scales is difficult, and it doesn’t fit the millions of years of human evolution that came before the Agricultural Revolution. Our brains allowed for a quick ascent to dense cities and eventually metropolitan statistical areas comprised of millions of people, but that change was faster than evolution. The challenge we face today is to cooperate together and find ways of living in a world we did not evolve to fit. The challenge is to develop an instinct for mass cooperation, even if it is not biologically natural for us right now.
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.
More on Modern Myths - Yuval Noah Harari - Sapiens - Joe Abittan

More on Modern Myths

In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “People easily acknowledge that primitive tribes cement their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits, and gathering each full moon to dance together around the campfire. What we fail to appreciate is that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis.”
My post yesterday gave several examples of modern myths that we believe in, even though we don’t recognize them as such. Harari focuses on the things in our world that are not tangible, but nevertheless are agreed to and recognized by humans across the globe. Many of our institutions are based on little more than trust and agreement, but those two factors, shared among enough people, are able to create shared myths. These shared myths allow us to make real, tangible objects. They allow us to organize and manage huge numbers of people. And they also allow us to come together, enjoy being social humans, and to have shared stories and legends.
I think the easiest way to see how modern humans are not much different than primitive tribes in terms of myths and community cementation is within sports, especially college sports. We will root for a team, often unreasonably given a team’s performance, and come together in unison to yell special chants meant to boost our team’s performance while hindering the performance of the other team. After the game we will discuss miracle plays, debate the performance of gifted, sometimes god-like individuals, and we will share the experience of being present to watch the special ritual of a comeback win or buzzer beater. The part of humanity which brought primitive tribes together around a campfire for bonding is still on full display in sports stadiums and college towns around the country.
But Harari goes further in his book than sports fanatics when exploring institutions, human organizations, and myths. Yesterday’s post referenced corporations, nations, and even human rights as being myths that humans have developed to bring people together around something intangible. Harari explains that human rights have been invented and agreed upon, that you cannot find human rights inside a person the way you can find lungs, bones, or livers. They exist because we agree that they do, much like the deities of ancient civilizations.
Harari also compares lawyers to shamans in his book. A corporate lawyer tells a story by making an argument from a certain point of view. Their words, how they phrase, present, and describe certain actions and situations, can ultimately change the reality of the world. It is not unreasonable, even if it is a creative stretch, to compare a modern lawyer to an ancient shaman who could mutter special incantations to cure the sick or bring rain.
What Harari is ultimately trying to argue is that the myths which helped kickstart societies and human cooperation never really left our human species. The myths changed over time, perhaps became less mystical and less magical, but still exist. We still rely on rituals and hidden forces to bring humans together, but we have shaped them as specific institutions that feel more grounded in reason and rationality than the institutions present in ancient myths. Ultimately, we still depend on stories to hold our societies together and connect millions and billions of humans peacefully and cooperatively.
Belief in Efficiency & Competitiveness

Belief in Efficiency & Competitiveness

In the United States we celebrate private enterprise. At the same time, we often downplay public institutions and ignore their contributions to the world we inhabit. We focus almost exclusively on the developments of private corporations and the developments and innovations of businesses. We are critical and wary of anything that can be presented as inefficient or likely to make private companies less competitive. However, this mindset sometimes means that we become too focused on short-term performance and fail to see larger systems and structures that unite private enterprise with the rest of society.
In his book The Homeless Christopher Jencks writes, “almost everyone … believes that efficiency (often called “competitiveness”) must come first, and that social stability will somehow follow.” The general mindset in the United States is that we need to have a fast paced, innovative, and efficient private sector for our country to flourish. Without first ensuring that the state is set for businesses and private enterprises to operate at maximal efficiency, our democracy and our country cannot successfully exist. America, this argument holds, is entirely dependent on business profits, and anything that gets in the way of competitive and efficient business is a threat to the country.
I am not an economist, and I don’t understand labor markets very well. However, I think that Jencks is correct when he states that we accept a level of sacrifice of the lowest socioeconomic status individuals in the United States in exchange for a meritocracy that generally works pretty well for most of us. I generally think we are hyper-focused on ideas of deservingness and on our own self-interest. We conflate our own self-interest with the self-interest of society at large, arguing that our economic purchases and chasing our own individual materialistic goals is what is going to keep our economy running, innovating, and leading the world.
The argument that Jencks is making in the quote above is that pure business efficiency and competitiveness is not enough for a stable society. Sacrificing those who don’t have the skills to make it in an efficient business world creates instability and fractures within our society – instabilities and fractures that an efficient business mindset cannot address. For Jencks, and for me, human connections and social cohesion are at least as important as efficiency and competition in business. The focus on short-term returns, a frequent critique of American corporations today, certainly cannot help social cohesion or improved long-term human connections and senses of community.
I think that writers like Tyler Cowen are correct in arguing that economic growth (which delivers improved quality of life) are important, but I’m not sure businesses are always focused on improving life satisfaction. Businesses are often focused on short term rent capture, which harms society. I think there are ways to drive innovations without creating an underclass that is crushed along the way and we need to find those ways. I think we need to remember how important the role of government can be in developing technologies and encouraging innovation. The development of the internet is a great example of the important, but easily overlooked role that the government can play in technological development, and Katz and Nowak show in The New Localism, how local governments and quasi-public/private institutions and partnerships can be a new model for driving economic growth and development. The key is recognizing that pursuing business efficiency at the cost of the lives of those on the lowest rung of society is not supportable and won’t lead to good social outcomes in the long run.
Is Homelessness an Individual Phenomenon?

Is Homelessness an Individual Phenomenon?

The other weekend I went for a run along the American River in Sacramento. California’s high cost of living and high housing prices are not as bad in Sacramento as they are in San Francisco, but nevertheless, housing in Sacramento is expensive, and many people have been displaced and become homeless. There are many homeless encampments along the American River pathway, with unsightly debris littering the river banks. I will admit, it is easy to be critical of homeless people when you are out trying to exercise and don’t want to run past garbage and homeless individuals that are a little scary. I was tempted, while I was out trying to exercise and do something good for my health and well-being, to criticize those who were homeless and making my run less enjoyable.
But I don’t think homelessness is entirely the fault and failing of individuals. What I remembered while running is that homelessness doesn’t reflect just individual failure, but societal failures as well. At some point we failed these people. We failed to help them have safe and healthy homes to grow up within. We failed to provide them with support, counseling, and treatment of addiction or mental health disorders before they became homeless. We failed to help them find some sort of purpose or meaning within their lives to give them a reason to make the difficult choices necessary to succeed in America.
In his book Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow makes the following proposition: “Homelessness is no longer a matter – if it ever was – of a few unfortunate winos or crazy people falling through the cracks of our vaunted safety net. Indeed, homelessness is not an individual matter at all. Homelessness today is a social class phenomenon, the direct result of a steady, across-the-board lowering of the standard of living of the American working class and lower class.”
We become so focused on ourselves as individuals and prize individualism so highly in the United States that we have failed to see how larger structural forces and systems shape our lives and the lives of others. If someone is poor and cannot afford housing, then we simply think they need to move to a part of the country with lower housing costs. Or we think they need to find a different job, develop new skills, and make something better of their lives. We don’t see how high housing costs, minimum wage jobs with no guaranteed health benefits, and societal disrespect have made people feel helpless and isolated. We don’t recognize that employers are taking advantage of low-wage employees, instead we criticize the low-wage employee for being in such a situation to begin with.
I think that Liebow is right, as much as I am tempted to be critical and judgmental at times. Homelessness is not something that just happens to a couple of bad apples, lazy individuals, or derelict drug addicts. If that were the case, the banks of the American River in Sacramento would not be so predictably crowded with homeless encampments. Homeless has become a larger phenomenon that we cannot address simply by telling the homeless to get clean and get to work. It is a societal failure, and if we want to criticize the homeless for failing in their personal responsibility, we have to acknowledge our own personal responsibility in creating a society and system that doesn’t fail those at the bottom.
Fear of the Homeless

Fear of the Homeless

This last week my wife and I volunteered in a kitchen to help serve meals to homeless men and women in our community. With the rise of the Delta Variant, the kitchen we volunteered at was not serving meals inside, but instead outside in the parking lot. This was the first time that we had served outside rather than inside, and the group leader chatted with us about the new format and some things to be aware of with the different serving location. It was the first Friday of the month, and as a result he warned us that some of the homeless individuals and people who came by for dinner were more likely to be using drugs or abusing alcohol for the evening since assistance checks would have just gone out. He warned us that when the kitchen switched to serving outside, they lost some control over the individuals and their things, and that a fight had broken out a few nights earlier. He wasn’t trying to scare us, just to warn us about the realities of volunteering outside rather than inside the kitchen.
I will admit, listening about the recent fight and likely active drug use of the people we were volunteering to help was frightening. I am not immune to a fear of the homeless, even though I still want to find ways to help them. Elliot Liebow would not have been surprised by my reaction. In his 1993 book Tell Them Who I Am he wrote, “everyone fears the homeless, including the homeless themselves.”
Fear is a big reason we don’t do more to help  the homeless. We are afraid of unpredictable people who are (or may be) using drugs and alcohol. We are afraid of people who may have mental illnesses and could act irrationally at any moment. We are afraid of people who are messy, who smell foul, and who could carry some type of disease or pest. Fear is a driving emotion related to the homeless and drives many of our behaviors. Liebow’s quote shows how common this fear is by noting that even the homeless fear each other.  With this fear comes a lack of trust and a lack of willingness to be around homeless. Without learning about the homeless, without having a chance to meet and interact with people who are homeless and needy, we fail to truly appreciate who they are, the challenges they face, and to develop any empathy toward them. Fear prevents them from reintegrating into society, and prevents us from understanding how we can best help those in need. It keeps them from connecting with each other and joining together to advocate for their needs or even help each other out. Fear locks the homeless out.