Thursday, July 26, 2012

Genes, Human Evolution, and the Coming of Civilization

There's a fascinating new series on Slate: Blogging the Human Genome. It's surprisingly good. It considers some things like whether men will go extinct , whether an STD-like virus drove human evolution, and how close the human race came to going extinct (evidence says maybe down to a few thousand adults).

This entry begins talking about the fact that perfect pitch is more prevalent among the Chinese whose language is tonal - the pitch changes the meaning of the word. Because children grow up in that culture, the genetic basis of perfect pitch is activated more often than it is in European cultures where pitch is less important, at least to those who do not wind up studying music at an early age. It then goes on to talk about how the cultivation of yams gave rise to sickle-cell anemia. In the process, it makes a larger point about how human genes have been transformed over the last few thousand years of human cultural adaptations:
One profound example of co-evolution involves chromosome 11. Thousands of years ago, various tribes in West Africa began clearing out the dense, ancient forests near their homes and cultivating plots to grow yams and other crops. Their strategy worked well—the yams thrived, becoming a dietary staple—but had an unintended side effect. The old forests had slurped up excess rain quite well; the bare farmland did a poorer job, and left standing pools of water that attracted hordes of mosquitoes.

Mosquitoes harbor diseases, especially malaria, which became endemic among Africans there, and the tribes had to come up with genetic defenses to survive. One mutation in particular seemed to help, an A→T swap on the hbb gene on chromosome 11. This mutation changed the shape of some red blood cells, making them less like a disc (the normal shape) and more like a crescent. This in turn helped prevent malaria, which parasitizes red blood cells, from getting a foothold. As a result, the mutated hbb gene began to spread in the region, following the clear-cutting yam farmers wherever they expanded.

Unfortunately, when the mutated, crescent-cell-producing gene became relatively common, people started having children with two copies of it. And while having one copy still provided resistance to malaria, having two copies proved deadly, since the crescent, or sickle-shaped, blood cells died off prematurely, and also jammed up inside small blood vessels. Today we call this condition sickle-cell anemia. The hbb mutation never would have wreaked such havoc among these tribes if not for the ancient decision to farm yams so intensely.

Cultural choices have expanded or contracted many other genetic traits as well. Different prehistoric diets (including the introduction of cooking) probably changed our teeth and jaw structures, farming starchy foods probably intensified the concentration of certain enzymes in our saliva that digest starch, and domesticating cattle and other milk-producing animals probably led to what by all rights should be called lactose tolerance (not lactose intolerance, since adults who can digest milk are the mutated weirdos). Many superficial human features, like eye color, also responded strongly to cultural cues about what different groups found attractive. In fact, modern civilization has curbed the ancient threats to our survival—exposure, droughts, starvation, predators, parasites—so well that culture probably shapes our genes as much or more than anything else nowadays.
Blogging the Human Genome. Entry 14: How yam farming contributed to the rise of sickle-cell anemia. (Slate)

And this leads me to articulate a theory I've been working on for a while, but have been unable to articulate. But since the above article directly related to it - specifically how society shaped human genetics, I will try and articulate it now, even though it's not very well-formed and in rough sketches. Sorry in advance for the choppiness and incoherence.

We must first accept that there is a strong genetic component to authoritarianism. By authoritarianism, I simply mean the fact that we listen to what “they” say. The fact that we are forced to act against our own will because everybody else is. We are forced to go with the herd – because we will be sanctioned if we do otherwise. But why is there a herd at all, in other words, why do human beings engage in this bizarre behavior that seems so against their self-interest? How could city-states form when people could just reject it in favor of a better alternative? Why do we see the rise of leaders being worshiped as gods and hard-earned grain taxes paid to temples because some distant priesthood “commands” them to do so? And why do we see this behavior even in the absence of direct military compulsion (you would need as many soldiers as subjects)?

My theory is that civilization formed from the bottom up – when authoritarian genes became dominant in the population. This occurred because cultures with large number of authoritarian followers were able to act coherently – in a “hive mind” so to speak, and militarily conquer peoples whose members were more able to reject hierarchical authority and think for themselves.

The Bible is practically a narrative of this dynamic – the Semitic Hebrew tribe conquers people after people in Iron Age Palestine, slaughters all the men and children and impregnates the women. They are told to do this by their God (the same God worshiped by Christians today, incidentally), who rules over them in a rigid class hierarchy. Thus they are able to pass along their authoritarian genes and eliminate the genes of the societies less able to resist their military onslaught for whatever reason (less cohesion, less institutions, less martial farvor, etc.). This process probably happened even earlier among the ancient city-states of Mesopotamia, where the Hebrew tribe and the stories of the Bible got their origin.

Essentially, man self-domesticates. Man is domesticated the same way any other animal is – by selective breeding. This is done by culling specific traits and selecting for others. They key is – and this is essential – it is human society which has done this, not a higher intelligence with a specific intent in mind such as man’s domestication of the cow or the dog. While the cow was designed by man for docility and the dog for submission and loyalty, civilization domesticated man to be a follower, with all of the cognitive blind spots this entails.

Human culture has transformed humans into herd animals, or sheeple – docility accepting the will of the alphas and accepting whatever unjust social systems exist, no matter how ridiculous or absurd. It took several thousand years for this process to occur, which explains why settled domesticated life began about fourteen thousand years B.C., but city-states and large-scale societies only begin to emerge about 4000 B.C., and spread rapidly from there. This is how long it took for authoritarians to become the dominant form of humanity and individualist genes to be sufficiently purged. Early agricultural villages like Catal Huyuk and Goblecki Tepe in Turkey show little signs of hierarchy. A few millennia later in places like Ur and Babylon, man’s spiritual inclinations had been hijacked by a dominant priesthood interceding between man and his tribal gods, and we see the emergence of kings, slaves, temples, taxes, and armies.

The Bible is practically a documentation of this effect. Consider the story of God ordering Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Here Abraham is so dedicated to following his invisible sky God that he is willing to cut his first-born son into little tiny pieces. In the end it’s just a test – God is making sure that man is the unquestioning follower he needs to command to bring about the success of his “chosen” people.

People who thought for themselves were less able to form armies and thus resist the onslaught of the authoritarian tribes who blindly followed the leader, essentially always on the basis of a religious affiliation. Such people were culled in the domestication sense – their genes were not passed on. The authoritarians, by contrast, were able to breed prodigiously. They were allowed to breed because they followed orders. It makes sense – how many people who went against the grain in history were rounded up and tortured or killed for their beliefs, while people who sided with the majority stayed out of trouble? Certainly following the pack was a better way to get your genes passed along.

Authoritarian societies were not better in any sense- but their members were more reproductively successful. Even before the military invasions, it’s likely that authoritarians, with their combination of fundamentalist religious belief and unquestioning acceptance of hierarchy were able to outbreed more lackadaisical tribal members. Even today authoritarianism and religion are tightly linked. It is also known that religious people tend to breed more (hence the baby fetishism prominent among Evangelical Christians even today). Once their genes became the majority – these societies were able to militarily conquer everything in their path. The use of religion to ensure tribal cohesion and divide groups into “us and “them – which also continues even today – helped increase the success of such tribes and their gene pool, ensuring that more and more people shared this world view.

The downside is that people were essentially enslaved by their minds – bound to serve and obey no matter what. The kind of bizarre and disordered thinking that characterizes authoritarianism – the belief in leaders so intense as to deny reality – is a genetic feature that seems to have spread through populations over thousands of years, and it is such behavior that makes hierarchical civilization possible. Simply put, authoritarians are more reproductively successful.

These beliefs were probably combined with the cocktail of other beliefs that have come to define civilization – a belief in dominance over nature, a removal or all checks on reproduction and a desire for permanent growth, a worship of military dominance, a desire to win at all costs and see all of society as a competition, a disdain for equality, etc. Again, look to the Bible – man is given dominion over the earth and everything in it. The Epic of Gilgamesh begins with Gilgamesh chopping down the forest to build a city.

From these origins, civilization spread not because people loved the idea. Civilization has always been spread by force. But what has maintained it? When civilized people took over other tribes, they practiced selective breeding to transform the gene pool into a mirror image of their own. This is what made civilization “spread.” Even today “primitive” tribes are wiped out.

Most of us are probably descended from these Semitic tribal peoples. Their authoritarian genes are the glue that holds modern society together even today. And even today people who object to the dominant social order are culled – prevented from reproducing, either through poverty or outright violence. Thus our genes continue to change – continue to get more and more authoritarian.

The other possibility is that modern American society is changing us genetically to be more cruel, selfish and less empathetic. Cultures are shaped by female preference. American woman seem to prefer the smarmy, glad-handling, garrulous, back slapping corporate salesman-type with the elevated mood. Plus, success is increasingly determined by your ability to navigate the Machiavellian world of corporations, meaning such people are able to have more children. Studies have conclusively shown that empathy is significantly declining among college students. And it is also known that empathy is associated with certain brain structures which are likely genetic in origin. is it possible American society, with it's promotion of the most selfish and sociopathic individuals, is breeding out human qualities like empathy and compassion? As an immigrant society, Americans are already self-selected for traits such as optimism, religiosity, greed, etc.

It is not surprising that the social revolutions of the Enlightenment in Europe began after the colonization of the New World. Simply put, the authoritarians were all shipped to the Americas. Most of them self-selected on the basis of religiosity. The populations remaining behind in Europe had a higher percentage of people less accepting and more critical of the social order, allowing revolutionaries to gain a toe-hold and gain enough popular support to topple the social order. That may seem paradoxical considering the American Revolution, but remember that was a top-down revolution led by aristocrats who were not supported by the majority of the population. today we see America devolving into an almost medieval feudal social order ruled by ignorance and superstition, and with more rigid hierarchy and less class mobility than Europe.


  1. Doesn't the novel "Cold Mountain" illustrate this phenomenon in the U.S. perfectly? And the murderous Home Guard hunting down the protagonist (and anyone else, like the musicians, who looked a little independent) is the same thing as the KKK and the Michigan Militia farther down the line.

  2. Very interesting, though personally I think the authoritarian impulse is more cultural and psychological than genetic. For example, the behaviour of modern corporations, the desire for wealth with zero thought for the consequences, was developed from the British mentality (also Dutch). The British nobility are descended from Viking marauders, who had no real desire to build a culture or society when they invaded, all they wanted was treasure, and it didn't matter who they had to rape or kill to get it. The later Normans had so much contempt for the common people they didn't bother learning the language. So we can see the development of the modern corporate mindset as a descendent of the viking mind, add a few sociopaths to run the show and you've got a fairly decent boardroom with good profit potential... and a screwed up world.

  3. An Interesting hypothesis. An adaptation to 'follow the leader'. Not sure wether it is entirely valid though. One thing a lot of us have in common is that we don't like to be bossed around (say 'please!'), but we like bossing other people around. This is in itself sufficient to explain our long history of building hierarchies, and undermining them at the same time. I think our compulsion for equality is probably at least as strong as our capacity for adoring heroes (see for example the Yanomamo concept of leadership : the leader has to be the first at work in the garden, the first in the hunt, the first in battle - you don't tell them what to do, you show them what to do; as a result, the Yanomamo leader is a hero who works harder at all the things everybody has to do).
    We should not forget that all 'great' civilizations have known several periods of social conflict, of war between 'haves' and 'have-nots'. In China, in the early 1600s, there was a thirty-year period in which the mean occurrence of uprisings was four per hour. 4 uprisings every hour during 3 decades...
    History is not just about the creation and conquest of nations, it is also about break-downs, revolutions, rebellions, insubordinations and refusals to comply. The bringing to power of enlightenment ideas in the american and french revolutions would have been impossible without the piracy of the 1680ies to 1740ies : they were the ones who inherited the ideas of the dissenters and other 'extremist' protestant groups, expanded them, tried to put them into practice, and made them known to people all over the 'known' world.
    I don't think it is necessary to invoke an evolutionary trend towards authoritarianism to explain the extraordinary 'success' of empires : based on growth, empires must create surplus population, which is a sufficient condition for military superiority. Traditional societies on the other hand, tend towards adapting their production of humans to the carrying capacity of the surrounding landscape. There is a seeming paradox here : societies that are better adapted, produce less offspring than the ponzi-schemes of 'Empire'. However, on the geological time-frame in which evolution works, Empires are short-lived, and the bigger they grow, the harder they fall. In the long run, it may well be that communities that are egalitarian, and able to adapt their population to their environment, turn out to be the most long-lived.

    1. On the link between Arrh! Pirates and enlightened democracy : Three things the pirates invented:
      1. The social contract. Members of a pirate crew made up a contract, mostly defined by equal division of spoils.
      2. Socialized healthcare. In the contract a fixed portion was stipulated to go to the wounded, according to the wounds received : so much for a finger, so much for an eye, a leg, etc., before they proceeded to the division of spoils. Everyone got one part, the captain one and a half, sometimes two, which brings us to :
      3. Division of powers. The captain got his extra for being the first on t'other ship, not for giving orders. The first mate ran daily business aboard, and the crew decided where to go by majority vote (which lead to some quite improbable trajectories across the oceans)

      There is a number four : anti-racism. Captain Misson and his multiracial crew installed a free republic in madagascar. Eating was done in a communal hall, seating was: no white man could sit next to a white man, no black man next to a black man : 'harmony in ebony and ivory', before 1730!

    2. Pirates are an example of how the earlier species of human - the non-domesticated variety of which I estimate to be 20 percent of the population (and falling) have been able to go "wild" and escape the confines of settled civilization. There have been numerous examples throughout history. The book Into the Wild illustrates how the frontier in America served this purpose for several centuries. Note however, that such people did not reproduce in very large numbers (not a lot of babies on pirate ships) thereby illustrating my point. Eventually, according to biology, their genes will disappear in favor of the agriculturalists who dutifully obey their kings and produce their 8-10 offspring. Tragically, places to escape the dominant civilization have all but disappeared.

      I've heard snippets of that hidden social history of piracy before. Those are some fascinating facts. Do you recommend any books or Web sites that expound on that history?

  4. One way of explaining the birth of empires is the feedback loop that starts when a nomadic tribe encounters an agrarian village: raids call for defenses, defenses call for bigger raids, bigger raids call for coalitions of villages, and so on. China, the mesopotamian, egyptian civilizations all follow this pattern. Conflict with concurrent (in both senses) tribes seems to be a constant condition for the creation of empires. This can be taken to support your point : agrarian empires tend to be more disciplined, nomadic ones more egalitarian. On the other hand, Nomads such as genghis khan had a very bossy nature, and the chinese empire started with a revolt, and they have continued revolting since then.
    I remain convinced that we are as much revolutionaries as we are dictators, as submissive as we are aggressive.
    Still an interesting notion.

  5. Another niggle.
    It wasn't the authoritarians who got shipped to america, quite the contrary. It was the diggers, the ranters, the ravers and other dissenters. those who went voluntarily were adventurers, those who were forced were outlaws.
    The sheeple stayed at home, and still we didn't remain sheeple for long: 1830, 1848, 1871, 1905, 1917, 1918, 1920, 1936, all European revolutions. All failed, but still unavoidably significant

    1. There were more than a few of these to be sure, and they've doubtless had a cultural impact, but I think they were overwhelmed by Europe's religious refugees obeying the command to "be fruitful and multiply" and had the resources to do so. America's extreme fundamentalist religiosity is unique in the Western world, which is why I believe these religious, and according to my theory, conformist genes got shipped here, paving the way for the European revolutions you mentioned. Also, the majority of Americans' ancestors arrived in the 19th century; essentially the United States is a transplant of Europe's vast peasant population, which is key to understanding American culture. Note that the Middle East, which did not export it's peasant population, retained its religious fundamentalism and oppressive social structures in a way that Northern Europe did not. Note also that America is culturally regressing to pre-Enlightenment and Middle Eastern cultural norms (extractive elites, fundamentalism, creationism, intolerance, anti-woman, guns, xenophobia, etc.) I'll have more to say about that.

  6. @ TripleG: I'm not familiar with the novel. On an unrelated note, I was just reading something about how the characters in Walter Scott's novels illustrate different mating strategies for men. Good fiction illuminates the world in ways non-fiction can't.

    @ dino: You're giving Vikings a short shrift! In fact, new evidence emerges that most Vikings were settlers and traders, not marauders. That view came about because the scant written material we had about them was set down by priests who often were on the wrong end of a battle-axe. Recent scholarship has given us a broader, more nuanced view. That statement about the Normans is interesting - I've often wondered why it was in England where people could so coldly throw their fellow countrymen under the bus to make money. The Industrial Revolution was as much social as economic. One reason it did not happen earlier or elsewhere is because other societies would not have tolerated being rent apart in that way. Even today there is resistance in many countries. What was it about England that made the requisite destruction of society possible? I should note that these systems long predate industrial capitalism - one could argue they were worse in the past - serfdom, slavery, summary execution, etc.

  7. @ lukitas: Cultural explanation seem weak to me - how did these control systems emerge and what kept them going? What maintains the pyramid system - force alone can't account for it. Your illustration of the Yanomamo actually illustrates my point: if a tribal chief claimed to be a god and "own" all the forest, and everyone else had to serve him and give him all the food, he would probably have his skull bashed in pretty quickly. Yet that is essentially the way modern societies work. So how could they emerge? Despite all the breakdowns and revolutions, slavery is a remarkably durable institution, lasting from the emergence of city-states through the nineteenth century. I agree with the view that we've only traded in one form of slavery for another (wage slavery instead of chattel slavery), so it's never really gone away. When the nomad threats passed, what kept people obeying the leaders? What explains the Protestant Work Ethic, where people obsessively work themselves into an early grave, even when not compelled to do so by outside forces?

    People don't like to obey but they do - and in ways that make no rational sense. Why do they do this? Altemeyer has shown that the thinking of conservatives is different from "normal" thought. To oversimplify, they believe the social order is absolute and right, and all their other thinking and perceptions are dedicated to proving that premise true and making it consistent. As I wrote last week, they will even alter their perception of temperature to conform to their preconditioned political beliefs. In our democratic society, there is nothing stopping people from rejecting the social order, yet they do not; they support it. I should note that having grown up among the lower-working classes and with years of religious education, I have observed such people up close my entire life. And I can tell you that like F. Scott Fitzgerald said of the rich, they are "different." They are primed to obey and not question. There is not a revolutionary bone in their body. Most revolutions have not come from the lower classes, they come about when the upwardly mobile middle classes become frustrated, and can gain the loyalty of the lower classes. But when all is said and done, revolutions always seem to end up in the same pyramidal structure.

    Phillip Longman, whose writings I referenced here, has pointed out that the only group of people having large families anymore is religious fundamentalists (c.f. the "quiverful" movement), and that this will have ramifications on society. He points out that by and large, fundamentalist families have fundamentalist children, even in open societies. That sounds like genetics to me. What he misses is that this has probably been going on for six thousand years or so. Note the links between obsessive overwork, Evangelical Protestantism, and breeding fetishism. There is nothing controversial about the idea that agricultural civilizations have displaced hunter-gatherers. My only addition is that they have changed human beings genetically - creating the domesticated human who is willing to obey. The connection between organized religion, agricultural societies, and reproduction seems significant to me. I'll have more to say on this in future posts.

    1. Control systems : force does not need to be visible to be effective. After a while, the threat of force is just as effective as its application. Behavioral systems that arise because of that potential violence end up by hiding the fact that there is any violence at all. Violence and force are still the root of power, but the violence has been hidden from view, sometimes in plain sight. We watch excessively violent cops like Jack Bauer on tv, but we expect our streets to be peaceful and our cops to be friendly. Democracy itself, the periodic vote, can be seen as a ritualistic guillotining of the political class.
      I think these control systems grow in feedback loops, a bit like the confrontation between an agrarian village and a nomadic tribe grows into 2 empires : one agrarian, the other nomadic. Likewise, repression and rebellion are always in the presence of eachother : state authority is always based on armed force, but must be seen as embodying a 'benevolent' ideology, the rebellion against it is often sullen, inarticulate, sub-conscious. The conflict between these two is an on-going process, the first known instance of which is the debt amnesty declared by a sumerian king a few thousand years ago.
      The protestant work ethic is not just protestant. The admiration of hard work, working hard because that is the way one ought to be, can be found all over the globe : japan, china spring to mind. There is a papuan tribe where the men spend excessively long hours on their gardens, doing much more than is needed. All this work is motivate by competition : who has the better looking garden, but the competition cannot be done without the work.
      I can see how a work ethic would develop faster and further in agrarian communities, but I still don't need an evolutionary propensity for authoritarianism to explain it : conditions of production in agrarian communities simply demand more work. Culturally defining 'Work' as 'Good' is a no-brainer, literally : people in those conditions do not have to think or decide that work is good, they know it. What rises to the surface is the inverse case : the lazy bum is to be vilified, judged, punished.
      As to reality and our perception of it : our perception of reality is always partly false : some of it is observed, some learned, some is 'common sense', conjecture, a little magic and a dollop of wishful thinking. I think of myself as an open-minded sceptic, but I know that my views on global warming, peak oil, the morals of communism and capitalism, can easily be seen as quite dogmatic. Not quite sure if we can so easily divide humanity into progressives and conservatives, if I can find both tendencies within myself, and those who surround me.

    2. As to the poor being 'different' in that they are incapable of taking the initiative, I quite firmly disagree. Historically, the upwardly mobile classes have only taken the lead when the lower class had already taken the initiative. After the revolution, the lower class leave the running of the show to the new (upper)middle class, in part because the middle class tries to exclude the lower class, in part because many of the lower class are much more interested in living than in ruling. If obeissance were cooked into our genes, how come revolutions revolve around class rather than tribe? Another vector is the age of the participants : young and adolescent poor are the first in the fight. If a lot of them get sacrificed in the first encounters, that change the dynamic of the revolution : now, parents become angry, and a more mature, 'responsible' part of the people takes to the streets. These are the people who 'submit' to the speeches and the promises of the bourgeois 'leaders'. Leaders always run after the facts. In france It took five years for the assembléé to write into law what the farmers had taken in 1789 and 1790.
      I have known a few large families (some very large). Very interesting as micro-societies. the parents tended to strong ideology and clear moral principles : one couple was deeply catholic, another convicted communists, and so on. the social dynamics within the families showed strong tendencies towards communism and egalitarianism as well as hierarchy and top-downism. Discipline among the kids was rather strict : washing times, meal times, chores were regimented. On the other hand, I have never felt so free as when playing with those kids. They were constantly reinventing their own society while mom and pop did the hard work of keeping them fed. Of course the older kids bossed the smaller ones. But the small kids were never just walk-overs, they rebelled and refused, and as appeals to higher authority were often not heard, they became quite effective at insubordination.
      Fundamentalist parents have fundamentalist children. I wonder what the genetic component would be, that makes you repeat the words your parents read from that big book with gold bordered pages. Probably the same as the one that made hunter gatherer children repeat which mushrooms were food, which poison.
      We know that agriculture has had an evolutionary effect : we have adaptations to the consumption of milk and starchy foods, adaptations of agricultural and nomadic cultures. These adaptations could not be very much older than the first agrarian and nomadic empires, and are specific to nutritional issues. We don't know that we are adapted for docility, and if we are, that adaptation may be much older that agriculture. Maybe it is the other way round, maybe our 100.000 year and more prehistory shows extraordinary docility, sticking doggedly to tradition, whereas the agricultural age could be characterized as an age of conquest, rebellion, ambition, caused by the introduction of a gene for being uppity.
      Maybe you are right, and we are (self) domesticated. But then we surely must have a gene for disobedience as well. A bit like in those big families : the older siblings never lose, but the younger always win.

      About pirates : The main source is Defoe of course, or a work ascribed to him : The General History of the Pyrates. invaluable for the early history is Exquemelin (sometimes œxmelin or Exmelin) 'Histoire d'avanturiers qui se sont signalez dans les Indes'. Captain Misson is mentioned in the general history. Exquemelin was a doctor with Henry Morgan's fleet. A current french philosopher wrote about piracy, but I forget his name, my daughter destroyed the book in a creative moment.

  8. One more comment. I find it much more interesting and productive to involve anthropology and psychology in explaining our nature than genetics. We cannot do much about the genes we have, but we know that culture is malleable.
    Take our notion of freedom. It can be described as an absence of constraint, or as the presence of options. However, both definitions are insufficient. Consider the relationship between a nest of young hatchlings and their parents. Half-naked and ugly, the little birds sit waiting with heir enormous beaks wide open to the skies, while the parents fly in with juicy worms, out to search for more, barely nourishing themselves. An observer can, with some truth, state that the children are tyrannical masters, being served by subservient and obedient parents. Similarly, human parents cannot refuse sustenance to their children (exceptions are exactly that : a fringe, off the margin event). But, Human parents describe themselves as educators, betters, masters, sometimes owners of their children. Human parents feed their children out of love and because they freely will it so. Which puts the notion of freedom in quite a different light : what if freedom is the feeling you get when you are able to do what you have to do anyway : feed yourself, your children, have sex with the love of your life, take a shower, etc. Constraint, lack of freedom is felt when you cannot do what you would do (have to do) : all the things mentioned above and more.
    In this context, the thing we usually mean by the word freedom becomes quite ethereal and without substance. Freedom exists not only as a contradiction of obligation (as in free from work, free from school) freedom also often requires the presence of obligation : we have to feed ourselves and our loved ones, we have to have fun, we have to fall in love, an act of goodness towards a stranger is not felt as an obligation fulfilled, but as a freely taken decision.
    Quite often, what we do, what we think we do, and what we say we do do not quite correspond. The apology scenario : I offer something (the apology), in the expectation that it be refused (please, no apology needed). How many of our interactions are exactly that : proposals that are meant to be refused : Why don't you stay and sleep on the sofa? You should come visit us. My aunt was famous for the way her invitation to not drink a cup of coffee meant exactly that : refuse the offer.
    Tangential, but still relevant : in a french film a female character tells a young man this story : You open the door of a bathroom and find a lady under the shower. If you say 'pardon, madame' while closing the door, you are polite. To be tactful, you have to say 'Pardon, Monsieur'.
    It is a lie, that assures the lady you have not had the time to discover her sex, thus saving her from embarrassment.
    All our societies and our cultures are a tissue of such lies and not-quite-truths. They are essential to the functioning of society. As such, they are a much more interesting domain of research than the question of wether some human traits have been altered through recent adaptation. Of course, lactose-tolerance and the production of enzymes adapted to starches are clear adaptations to nutritional circumstances. I am not certain that we have been selected for docility. Yet, at some point in our lives, our parents are gods. Then we transfer the godhood to young aunts and uncles or older siblings, sometimes other mentors. We fall in love. We proceed by having kids, trying to make them obey. And then our parents become decrepit senile sacks of shit. And the kids rebel.
    The idea that we should be genetically predisposed to docility makes me very unhappy. I prefer to think of ourselves as cultural and psychological creatures : if our culture is a tissue of lies, we can work on the lies. Making us better humans through genetics is quite out of our reach, yet.

  9. Current science is showing more and more that differences in world views have a genetic basis. That is, there are fundamental difference in the way authoritarians see the world, and these are based on personality. It is known that personality has a strong genetic basis. One influence was Peter Whybrow’s book American Mania, which speculates that Americans’ desire for novelty and overstimulation comes from the D4-7 allele in the dopamine receptor system, which predisposes Americans to impulsivity and addiction, and that this is disproportionate in Americans because we are an immigrant society. In what other ways are we different, I wonder? And some new literature like the book “Conservatives without a Conscience” based on the work of Bob Altemeyer and “The Republican Brain” by Chris Mooney fill in more. This podcast interview with Mooney might shed some light on this idea:

    I find cultural explanations unsatisfying. Why are there the stereotypical families with the one liberal hippie Occupyer, when everyone theoretically grew up in the exact same environment? Why am I not a suburban right-wing religious fundamentalist like almost all of the people I grew up with despite twelve years of brainwashing? How can environment account for this? I don’t think it can, which is why I think genetics play a role. Not the only role, but a role.

    Then I wondered whether being a conservative and authoritarian conveyed reproductive advantage. I considered the baby-fetishism of the right – Michelle Bachmann with her 20 foster kids, the Duggars and their 15 offspring or whatever, the ‘quiverful’ movement, their obsession with unborn babies, and their “family-centered” way of life. The pastor of my old church died recently – he had 7 kids. The previous pastor had 8 (I went to school with some of them). I suspect that religious fundamentalists have always had more kids – Abraham is the supposed father to millions.

    Then I considered the link that and between being a believer in organized religion, passion for war, dominating attitudes, conventionalism, credulity, hatred of outsiders, contempt for equality, compartmentalized thinking, us versus them attitudes, rigidity, acceptance of the social order, etc. All of these tend to cluster remarkable well. Why? Really, they are unrelated. Then I considered the connection between organized religion and state formation, which Fukuyama touches on in his latest book about how the rise of the states out of tribal societies.

    Finally I noted that it’s a lot easier to run these authoritarian societies with these type of people. I don’t think it’s possible to have these type of societies with a majority of people questioning their leaders. I read somewhere that hunter-gatherer cultures emphasize expression, while agricultural ones stress conformity. But if the individualist and the conformist have different brain structures, how can we say that “culture” is responsible for the shift? Unfortunately, such societies would be less effective economically and militarily. The feedback loop you describe is exactly right, just with a genetic twist based on our new understanding of brain science. Note also the tendency is for society to kill of deviants much more commonly than it is for the social order to be upset.

  10. I feel that a society would take on the characteristics of the people living under it. Where else would it come from? And if we accept that people are different based on genetics, the dominant genes in a society would form the character of that society. Put another way, Sweden is more egalitarian because its people are more egalitarian, not because anyone is forcing egalitarianism on them, which would be impossible in any case. Given that America is an offshoot of European culture, why has it diverged so dramatically so that is more closely resembles the Middle East? I think culture is at least partly formed by genetics, rather than us being blank slates “programmed” by whatever culture we happen to grow up in.

    I don’t mean to suggest that humans are predisposed to be docile. It’s more like the majority are obedient, and this trait spreads with the spread of agricultural peoples, because people with this trait reproduce more effectively. You and I are obviously not in that majority, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation, so It’s hard to understand the mindset of people who are. To some extent we are “throwbacks”, to earlier humans. Again, listen to the podcast and that will give you some basis of where the idea comes from. The disclaimer is that it’s just that–a theory that I’m putting out here. I’m not a scientist, so I’m not claiming to be right.


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