In Defense of Religious Belief.

So this paper sprouts online a couple of weeks back: “My Brother’s Keeper? Compassion Predicts Generosity More Among Less Religious Individuals”. It appears in the July issue of Social Psychology and Personality Science (which yes, is in the future but don’t worry you can get a preprint here); the list of authors is about as long as the phone directory for Fester, Saskatchewan; and it’s raised a bit of a splash. “Highly religious people are less motivated by compassion than are non-believers”, headlined Medical Xpress; “Highly Religious People Are Less Motivated by Compassion Than Are Non-Believers”, ScienceDaily announced. “Atheists More Motivated by Compassion than the Faithful” LiveScience chimed in, while The Christian Diarist groused that “Study Claims People of Faith Are Stingy”, and of course went on to call bullshit on that conclusion. Judging by these and a myriad other headlines (all the way over to Soviet-Empire.com), science has once again shown that we godless atheists are more moral and compassionate — in a word, better — than the Sky-Fairy brigade.

You’re not going to believe this. I’m siding with The Christian Diarist on this one.

Not because its critique is especially profound, mind you — in terms of analytic rigor the TCD post is just another whingefest that misses the point — but because, well, that’s not really what the paper shows. All these headlines, and a myriad others, don’t actually report the paper’s findings in their proper context. Even the title of the paper itself, while not technically inaccurate, is ambiguous at best: downright misleading at worst.

Disclaimers first. This was by no means an airtight paper. The stats were a bit weak; a lot of their significant results only passed muster at the 0.05 level (which, yes, is good enough for publication, but there’s still a 1-in-20 chance of coincidence — 0.01 is always better). Two of the three studies involved self-reporting (“How compassionate are you feeling today on a scale of 1 to 5?”; “Would you be more or less likely to give money to a stranger under X circumstances?”). And while the first two studies sampled a pretty representative sample of the overall population (they piggybacked on the General Social Survey), the third study — and the only one to actually involve real stakes as opposed to imaginary ones — used college students (yes, that highly-educated demographic so perfectly representative of a population so stupid that >40% believe in creationism). And maybe it’s just me, but I found some of the experimental protocols almost incomprehensible:

“Upon arriving in the laboratory, participants were seated at a cubicle and asked to rate their current feelings of compassion by answering how much they felt ‘‘compassion/ sympathy’’ at the present time from 1 (do not feel at all) to 7 (feel very strongly).”

What does that even mean? Compassion for anything in particular? Just a general state of emotional wobbliness?

On the other hand, two of the three studies did involve representative population samples; the researchers corrected for the effects of “gender, political orientation, and subjective socioeconomic status”; and hell, even that lame-ass question about compassion is apparently consistent with some kind of scale verified by Frederickson et al which I couldn’t be bothered to follow up, so who am I to complain?

So enough about that. Enough about study methodology, too, even though I haven’t even mentioned it yet; if you’re interested in those details, read the paper. What I found interesting were the results (Late edit for clarity: more precisely, the way those results have been presented publicly.) And the results, contrary to every second headline on the internet, did not show that nonbelievers were more generous, or even more innately compassionate, than believers were. In fact, one of the very first results Saslow et al. reported was that “those who reported a greater tendency to feel compassion were more religious individuals…”

What this study actually found was not that religious people are less compassionate, but that the religious are less governed by compassion in their behavior — that a nonbeliever such as myself is more likely to be hacked by emotional stimuli. Check out the figure to the left, for example: the y-axis scales roughly to “total compassion” (or perhaps “total suckerness”), insofar as it’s the amount of money that someone is willing to hand over to a stranger in need, while the X-axis compares said contributions between those recently exposed to a “neutral” video vs. a “compassion-inducing” one. These results do not show that religious folks are less compassionate — they’re actually more compassionate than non-believers when not subjected to heart-tugging propaganda. It’s just that when you haul out videos of bedraggled kittens and starving Ethiopians, nonbelievers suddenly go all awww and melt inside, while the behavior of believers remains more or less stable.

Saslow et al. don’t experimentally investigate exactly why this might be; they just present the patterns. They speculate, though, as to possible underlying causes:

“Overall, we might conclude that the less religious may be bound to others by emotional connection. These findings are similar to Batson’s empathy–altruism hypothesis, in which empathy rather than egocentric motivations determine altruistic behaviors (Batson & Shaw, 1991). The more religious, on the other hand, may ground their generosity less in emotion and more in other factors such as doctrine, a communal identity, or reputational concerns.”

In one sense this is a big yawn: what, the religious are more likely to deny their inner urges, live by strictures and rules imposed by some top-down hierarchy that hijacks victims for its own benefit? Big hairy deal. You might as well evince surprise that those poor crabs infected by Sacculina have grown so strangely preoccupied with serving the interests of the parasitic barnacle that has infested them. Still. There’s no denying that the bottom line presented by this study is, quite simply:

Religious people are less governed by their emotions.

It doesn’t really matter that the emotion here is compassion, which most would regard as a positive trait. I’ve long lamented the fact that after all this time we humans are still basically Ids With Excuses, that we use our neocortices not to control our brain stems but to justify them. Here, though, we see evidence that one of our most basic emotional responses can be brought to heel, and it’s entirely plausible that the whip hand is an algorithm consciously imposed: a case where rules override instincts. In that sense it doesn’t matter so much that said algorithm may have its roots in childish superstitions about undisprovable ass-hamsters and invisible sky fairies. It’s a detail all too easily lost in all those disparaging headlines, but — if Saslow et al.‘s findings hold up — those who adhere to those superstitions exert at least some control over their brain stems in a way that we rationalists, as a group, do not.

Ceiling Cat forgive me, I can’t help but see the glimmer of a Good Thing in that.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Wednesday June 13 2012at 06:06 pm , filed under ass-hamsters . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

43 Responses to “In Defense of Religious Belief.”

  1. At this point I feel it incumbent upon me to mention the fact that the “passion” part of the word “compassion” stems from “pathos” or “suffering.” So, passion, compassion, even sympathy and empathy, all stem from a notion of suffering and how to share it. And in Christian culture, suffering is special. Kant’s categorical imperative elevates it to a level beyond that which it ever held within traditional doctrine. So it doesn’t surprise me that those who have been taught to suffer understand and identify with the suffering others on a consisten basis.

  2. so it is truth then. that NON extremist religious and NON extremist conservative people use more logic and common senses to discuss or explains things, while extremist atheist/liberals (only 1% of atheist people are NON extremist, sadly) led themselves guide ONLY by their fluffy feelings and passions witch is why most of the things they says don’t make sense at all, just like their hippies ancestors from the 60’s and 70’s.

    PETA is another example of illogical extreme liberalism, who instead of really helping animals…what they do is really killing all of them for no good reason.
    lady gaga, Madonna, katty perry and many many others famous celebrities and singers are also example of stupid illogical extreme atheist liberalism behavior.

    the ONLY religious and conservatives people that are as bad and dangerous as extremist atheist/liberalism, are those who are extremist in their religion or believes. like al-quaeda, evangelist, progressive Christians, Nazis, etc…..

    this article of yours is very interesting i will read it more and star to do an big analysis of it.

    by the way, in the &/$$%$% yahoo news page there is an article of so called “scientific” study saying that all religious/conservative have a “VERY LOW” IQ in other words dumb, while all liberals/atheist are 100% “smarter” than everyone else in the world.

  3. Interesting.

    However, one can see the flip-side of this: if the theory is that religulous people are less governed by their emotions, they may also be prone to engage in… shall we say “negative” behavior, if it is supported by the ideological framework that they are using to ride their brainstem a little tighter than the average non-religious person.

  4. I’m a bit amused by how this study essentially supports a simple notion — people who live by an ethical ruleset are more inclined to follow that ruleset (for good or ill) and not be as swayed by emotional concerns that differ from that ruleset; people who don’t live by such a ruleset are more inclined to have emotional reactions and to act on them.

    Next up — a study that reveals that dogs tied to a stake are less likely to shit on your lawn than dogs who have no stake.

    If there’s one thing the recent atheism fad has taught me — being a jerk or a nice person is not dependent on what you think about religion. There is zero correlation.

  5. Peter Watts wrote, in-part: […] In that sense it doesn’t matter so much that said algorithm may have its roots in childish superstitions about undisprovable ass-hamsters and invisible sky fairies. It’s a detail all too easily lost in all those disparaging headlines, but — if Saslow et al.‘s findings hold up — those who adhere to those superstitions exert at least some control over their brain stems in a way that we rationalists, as a group, do not. […]

    Peter, I don’t want to directly either critique your statement, nor attempt to confirm or deny it. Yet let me first take a side-step and suggest that perhaps it is important exactly which rules are adopted by the faithful as having come from invisible sky-fairies or the Giant Undetectable Purple Space Squid (which you cannot prove doesn’t exist any more than I can prove it does exist).

    Having taken the side-step, let me make an argument by analogy, generally considered unacceptable but this argument covers the deaths of millions and the survival of hundreds of thousands.

    ——

    The Romans, for all of their many virtues, were far less interested in Charity than they were interested in selling into slavery those people who couldn’t pay their debts, or were such beggars that they couldn’t pay the fairly low tithes and bribes to the street-level of civil authority. Much less would they buy medicine or treat the wounds of people who had nothing and could not benefit them even if well. Charity was effectively considered tantamount to Idiocy or Wastefulness.

    When the Plague of Justinian swept the known world (and probably most of the rest of it as well) in the 5th Century CE, the silly sky-fairy faithful Christians considered Charity to be one of their most solemn duties, as it came directly from Jesus when he declared “as you tend another when ill, when you visit the prisoners, when you clothe the naked, it is as you have done this for me whom you love”. The Christians suffered immense losses in the plague as did everyone else. Yet where those Roman pagans who took ill were left to their own devices, Christian after Christian effectively threw themselves to their fate by tending to the ill. And lo and behold: those given to nursing who later took ill, often were tended by those whom they had nursed through their own illness. The Christian survival rate is believed to be far higher than that of the pagans… simply because the admonitions of faith which they had internalized did cause them to act in ways most altruistic… which were quite immediately beneficial to them in this world, whatever the reward in the putative hereafter.

    So, it matters what you believe, as much as it matters that you believe. If your deepest conviction — based however erroneously on faith in the unproveable — is to help whomever you may as if you must, this earns gratitude even among the faithless or those of other faiths. For the response to Charity, in a moral individual even though they have no religious beliefs, is that Charity is good: Charity has saved themselves; Charity has saved countless others when the lack of Charity saved few or none. Thus, as Charity is a great good, what has inspired Charity therefor is good, and ought to be taught, if only so that there shall be, when needed again, more Charity.

    QED, I think, that regardless of how bogus the rationale behind some given faith, “by their works shall ye know them”. I am not going all wackjob xian-boy on you here, but if you ignore the priests and read the words of Jesus as they are written, you might concern yourself less with the tiny size (scant basis in reality) of the mustard seed, and consider the size of the tree that comes from it (tithes to charity and hospital systems). And consider that even less than you consider that a vine may be unimpressive and weak, but such fruits it may bear may be delight of all who drink of that wine.

    Probably I’ve had a bit too much of that wine to be more direct and less reliant on tiers of metaphor, but I hope it’s comprehensible enough… for an argument by analogy.

  6. I wonder if the Religious folk tend to feel like these problems of the world (that inspire compassion in many) are all part of “god’s plan”, or whatever little misdirection can be used to add a degree of separation. I’ve always been irked by the lack of ownership that comes part and parcel with religion… Some of us may watch the starving Ethiopians commercial and think: “hey, we humans are a fucking shitty bunch” and some of us may think: “He works in mysterious ways”.

  7. “Religious people are less governed by their emotions.”

    That can be a good thing indeed, but also a bad thing.

    It would go quite a ways to explaining how religiously indoctrinated people – be it spiritual religions or religion-esque personality cults – are capable of committing atrocious acts in name of their beliefs, apparently while experiencing little to no remorse or compassion.

  8. If they only measured compassion via self-reporting (“are you feeling compassionate today?”), then it shouldn’t be surprising that religious people self-report as compassionate under a wider array of situations. Religious people are taught from a young age that compassion is virtuous, to be strived for, that if you’re not compassionate you suck and are a terrible person, etc. I’d expect a similar curve from the results of asking them “On a scale of 1 to 7, are you a miserable evil turd or a decent human being today?”

    Non-religious people don’t have the same kind of indoctrination regarding compassion, and are thus less likely to be inhibited about reporting non-compassionate feelings.

  9. Back when I was going to a Baptist church, being humble was considered a great virtue. People talked a lot about how humble they were, recounted stories that showcased their humbleness (carefully pointed out so the listeners wouldn’t miss it), and frequently proclaimed before the whole congregation that they were very humble.

    Being humble was something they were very proud of.

    If you had gone by self-reporting, the woman guest preacher who bragged about her humility while lecturing the congregation that they weren’t humble enough would have been the most humble person on the planet.

    OTOH, I’m not convinced that self-reporting would have got at their true feelings/motivations. By self-reporting, each one was a meek humble follower of the-lord-jesus-christ-their-personal-lord-and-savior. The backbiting, gossip, sleeping around, fraud, manipulation, one-upmanship, and hat competitions existed in a world entirely separate from their professed meekness and humility.

  10. rodrigo: by the way, in the &/$$%$% yahoo news page there is an article of so called “scientific” study saying that all religious/conservative have a “VERY LOW” IQ in other words dumb, while all liberals/atheist are 100% “smarter” than everyone else in the world.

    Well, judging by your post at least, we’re certainly better at spelling and sentence construction. As for the rest, there are a few other posts on the ‘crawl you might be interested in: this might be a place to start.

    Ben Trafford: Next up — a study that reveals that dogs tied to a stake are less likely to shit on your lawn than dogs who have no stake.

    Yeah, well, I said “big yawn” for a reason. The actual findings are modest and completely unremarkable. What I find so remarkable is the reaction to them, the way in which everyone is twisting them around to imply findings that weren’t there, and which would associate religious belief with heartless assholery. I’m way more used to seeing the mainstream media defending religion than attacking it.

    Besides, it’s not as though there aren’t plenty of nonspurious reasons to diss that kind of faith…

  11. “I’m way more used to seeing the mainstream media defending religion than attacking it.”

    I’m not so sure they *were* attacking it; I’d lean toward their not even understanding the study and its results, and reporting their best guess. Or, just stirring the pot to stimulate purse-fights online, maybe. More stuff to “cover” with more ignorant reportage.

  12. I would be interested to see these results correlated with the respondents actual experience with actually giving charity (which seems to be what this study is looking at – it’s apparently based on the money people are willing to shell out in given situations). Practical experience with donating money quickly leads to using sites like Charity Navigator for organizations, and choosing to buy the homeless alcoholic a sandwich and chips rather than give him cash. You only have to be scammed a time or two to decide that if you’re going to give money away you’re going to make sure it does some actual good rather than pay for more of the problem, or to pay for “administrative costs” rather than food for the starving.

    In other words, I think Peter hit on it exactly. Experience in monetary charity leads to both more sensitive BS detection and a decrease in an individual’s “sucker quotient.” Most organized faiths require or at least strongly encourage charity on the part of their adherents, and long-term practice of this principle would tend to lead to more reasoned, less emotion-based practice.

    That’s my theory, anyway. And by the way, if you’re looking for a good charity to donate to, try Free the Slaves. Because people ain’t property.


  13. Some of us may watch the starving Ethiopians commercial and think: “hey, we humans are a fucking shitty bunch” and some of us may think: “He works in mysterious ways”.

    And some of us are thinking… haven’t those people exceeded the carrying capacity of their lands?

    Why give them more food? Won’t that result in even more people unable to feed themselves?

    Africans themselves see it more clearly:
    http://www.spiegel.de/international/spiegel/0,1518,363663,00.html


    Practical experience with donating money quickly leads to using sites like Charity Navigator for organizations, and choosing to buy the homeless alcoholic a sandwich and chips rather than give him cash

    Which means he won’t have to spend much money on food and will save all his money for drink.


    Ceiling Cat forgive me, I can’t help but see the glimmer of a Good Thing in that.

    That’s an emotional attitude. Glimmer of a good thing.
    Unless an emotionally appealing religion that promotes rational decision making suddenly appears and spreads rapidly, no good thing will come from that.

    In the end, being rational requires a lot of thinking and mental effort, which is not something people generally like to do unless pressed hard by circumstances.

  14. How did we get from religious people self-reporting they felt more compassionate to religious people being less controlled by their emotions in general? Isn’t this about compassion, not rage, joy, fear, lust, or whatever we are lumping into emotions?

    Also, you surprised me – digging deeper into something that on the surface supports your prejudices, at the cost of ruining any delicious confirmation bias you might have been enjoying. I very much enjoy watching your mind at work.

  15. @ Hljóðlegur, writing in-part: How did we get from religious people self-reporting they felt more compassionate to religious people being less controlled by their emotions in general? Isn’t this about compassion, not rage, joy, fear, lust, or whatever we are lumping into emotions?

    Not having read the paper, I don’t know if this covers mostly (or only) judeo-christian-islamist, or if it includes buddhists, taoists, confucianists, etc. Buddhism after all is to a great degree about separating one’s self from one’s attachments and passions, and seeking to be compassionate in all possible ways.

    But speaking to/about the “big three” faiths, much of judeo-christian faith does seem to be about putting aside whatever it is that you personally might prefer to do, and conforming to “the word of g_d”. Feel like axe murdering your neighbor because you covet his Maserati? G_d says “sorry, that’s not allowed” and the devout person will let the commands of the almighty override their own personal preferences. In any case, all of the “big three” faiths certainly suggest or require Charity, and perhaps I am being a bit dim, but it seems that Compassion and Charity are very much linked. Even Judaism says “be kind to those that despitefully use you, for thereby [as it were] you heap coals of fire on their foreheads”, suggesting that tolerance and forbearance are admirable and part of YHWH’s plan, even if you are also supplied with a perfectly self-serving rationale. Can’t that be extended pretty easily to the notion that even people that you loathe for whatever reason such as addiction or stupidity ought to be thought of as morally equal to anyone else, at least as regards not letting them starve to death?

    @Y, who wrote in-in part: Unless an emotionally appealing religion that promotes rational decision making suddenly appears and spreads rapidly, […]

    I’ve been trying to develop a sort of Deist Wicca (“we are earth-centric and semi-animist/pantheistic, but don’t allow people to define for us what is appropriate ritual practice”) that sees science as the best tool for studying creation, creation being the sole evidence of a creator (and not even definitively that sort of evidence), and if there were a creator, creation would presumably have the intent of the creator embedded. See also “clockmaker god” and the notion that by studying a watch you can try to figure out what the designer thought was interesting or useful about time.

    It’s tailor made for people who like to argue and dig up facts and one of the tenets is that everything is subject to peer review. Actually, it’s sort of like Science but it also gives a perfectly good excuse to have parties on full moons, new moons, quarter moons of either kind, equinoctes, solstices, eclipses, occultations, etc etc etc. This is to increase the popularity and help it spread more quickly. 😉

  16. Y.: And some of us are thinking… haven’t those people exceeded the carrying capacity of their lands?

    That’s not exactly what the interview you link to boils down to: it’s more or less just about rampant corruption with developmental aid.

    As for carrying capacity, could you please enumerate the carrying capacity of the regions in question? You’re aware that it’s not just hunter-gatherer and plain agriculture that differ on that one, right? Using Malthusian chick to make your point might be the vogue, problem is naive Malthusianism gets falsified all the time.

    Also note that famines lead to an erosion of both habitats and infrastructures, which is not that nice when looking at environmental issues.

    So yeah, developmental aid needs some serious reconsideration, but goin g back to a guy dead for nearly 200 years isn’t any more scientific that the Holy Church of St. Charlie from Trier.

    As for the original paper, there are two alternate explanations I could come up with:

    1.) People naturally high on prosocial behaviour tend to become religious, e.g. because otherwise suffering doesn’t make sense (yeah, there is always theodizee, so that doesn’t really make sense, but then, little does) or because it minimizes cognitive dissonance when you help without immediate benefit. Or they just like the chanting and the free supper.

    2.) There is a hidden neurological variable that leads both to higher prosocial behaviour and higher religiosity, to go for the usual suspect, hyperactive mirror neurons, anyone.

    A somewhat naive but interesting test might be when the prosocial behaviour would be in violation of some doctrines of the religion in question. If the prosocial behaviour is just rule-driven, one would expect a similar curve to the non-believers. If it’s “genuine”, there should be little difference. Knowing the fun quite some Catholics have with church doctrine on contraception(1), this might be interesting.

    Elaborating on the second explanation, maybe the missing variable is ‘intuitive’ thinking or something similar, like emotional arousal. There is one paper that shows religiosity is somewhat linked to an ‘intuitive’ thinking style

    http://www.sciencemag.org/content/336/6080/493

    while irreligosity was linked to analytical thinking. So, in the ‘low compassion’ scenario, believers act intuitively, while nonbelievers act analytically. In the ‘high compassion’ scenario, believers still act intuitively, but with nonbelievers, the analytical thinking gets compromised with emotions, and they act intuitively, too. That’d be somewhat opposite the original ‘driven by id’-hypothesis, but then, Freud-Schmeud…

    Disclaimer: Author is agnostic nbut shows signs of cultural Roman Catholicism.

    [1] Which is internally somewhat logical, of course; the problem is “we never erred” is to Roman Catholicism like customer support was to Apple once, err.

  17. Is this that “neurological argument for the existence of god” you mentioned a while back?

  18. As Hljóðlegur observes, this paper covers one emotion.

    I see nothing wrong with your analysis, which suggests that religicos are less affected by that emotion than the non-religicos. But I wonder if we can legitimate extend that proposition to cover other emotions as well.

    Yes, it might be hopeful to think that the religicos are consciously controlling their emotional responses in this one area. But again: suppose the non-believers are permitting themselves this emotional response because they’ve decided that it is positive and pro-social? I don’t see that we’ve got evidence to suggest, for example, that the atheist crowd is more likely to act on rage or envy than the DJ-In-The-Sky group.

    I think there’s some interesting follow-up work to be done here.

  19. Trottelreiner: A somewhat naive but interesting test might be when the prosocial behaviour would be in violation of some doctrines of the religion in question. If the prosocial behaviour is just rule-driven, one would expect a similar curve to the non-believers. If it’s “genuine”, there should be little difference.

    Not so naive, I think. I’m reminded of certain religious charities operating in Africa that will only offer their aid on the condition that things like family planning or contraception aren’t a part of it, in spite of the AIDS epidemic ravaging the continent. Having one’s compassionate impulses dampened by learned dogma could explain such behavior, so it’s a viable hypothesis at the very least. Definitely worth further study.

  20. Bastien: Not so naive, I think.

    There are some problems with this approach, e.g. at least in the case of Roman Catholic dogma, we have something of a layered cake, where even the fundamentals, e.g. Second Temple Judaism and Hellenistic philosophyx are somewhat at odds. It gets worse. And, as mentioned, one of the appeals of Roman Catholicism, just as the Holy Orthodox Church of st. Charlie from Trier, AKA Marxism, is that it never errs. Believe me, Canonical jurisdiction is funny, it reminds one somewhat of Talmudic discourses…

    Problem is that the laiety and even some of the clergy wouldn’t see this disconnect, so we’d be hard pressed to differentiate between ‘intuitive reasoning’ and ‘failure to use all available data in the analysis’. Note BTW that especially in the Dictator game, the analytical thinking mode, in this instance AKA homo economicus, more or less boils down to “I keep all to myself”, while real human beings are notorious for differing from this model for various reasons. Though that is not an inate response, see the WIRED paper. So the graph above just shows ‘even at baseline, religious people are less likely to use analytical reasoning, while unbelievers need to be hacked by bleeding heart imagery’.

    As for the disconnect between church doctrine and real life behaviour, there are some religious poeple acting quite in defiance of Chruch doctrine, e.g. Donum Vitae:

    http://www.cathnews.com/article.aspx?aeid=4459

  21. In regards to aide for Africa, I’ll speak as a (former?) African who has seen the aide in action, as anecdote, but there’s certainly a lot of literature/examples that support this description (Google should give you a monsoon of responses should you ask it).

    Aide is primarily used as a means of manipulation and control over the local populace for the benefit of foreign interests. (Organisations using monetary strings as a means of achieving their political objectives? A shocker, I know)

    Either through a bunch of conditional attachments that are often worth more than the aide itself (e.g. This religious group offers a shoebox of nice things, please acknowledge that these are gifts from God, as per pamphlet A, and that you should convert as per pamphlet B, and build a church as per pamphlet C, all pamphlets are helpfully located in the top of said shoebox).

    Or through direct blackmail/enforcement of objectives (e.g. Corporations in concert with foreign governments going, “You mean you don’t like that oil drilling operation exploiting your people as slave labour and contaminating the only water supply? Well then, I guess you don’t like to eat either… Yoink!” This would be of course, after the local agriculture production capabilities have been eroded, or purposefully destroyed, just to prevent any alternative choices)

    The problem with aide isn’t so much that it exists, as that it is required to be used in the wrong way by the providers or used as a sword hanging over heads. Temporary relief versus infrastructure development. It’s something Africans(those not getting kickbacks from the aide) have indicated for an extremely long time. But is usually met with a pat on the head by Western society, with the claims of knowing better that the “ignorant savages who need to be saved”, or to enforce the “secret” desire to continue control, and is rarely opposed by their general population because aide gives them a nice feeling and/or smug feelings of superiority. (e.g. I attended a conference by the Frasier Institute before I knew who they were, which is a Canadian extreme right wing bullshit factory. Where they claimed all the problems I described could easily be fixed by private property rights… And basically ignored the point about how foreign governments/corporations will literally crush such attempts, including with outright murder).

    It’s also wise to remember that a large part of why Africa is even in this situation, is because it’s been exploited for hundreds of years for it’s resources/labour, and that never stopped, even if the “official part of ‘X’ empire” status was revoked. The Africans have responsibility for their nations, certainly, but it’s not as if the situations were crafted lovingly by their own hands.

    And just to add, because it’s always one of the immediate responses, no, “well stop taking the aide then” is not an option either. Or at the least, I think Africans should/could be forgiven for not happily choosing the “starve to death” route, I somehow doubt you’d choose differently in their situation.

    *Note: This type of “aide” does sometimes also comes in the guise of infrastructure development agreements, or loans, etc, often through the, IMF, World Bank and WTO. (e.g. the IMF brokered a deal in my own nation, where French and German corporations would operate/privatize the water infrastructure we spent decades building, and promised it would more efficient/cheaper. The corporations then promptly charged the populace a ridiculous amount, think paying as much for water as you do for rent out of your paycheque, and whoever didn’t pay got their supply cut to a literal trickle. When the government tossed them out, the IMF enforced all their nasty little clauses for “breaching” the contract)

  22. Trottelreiner: Though that is not an inate response, see the WIRED paper.

    Err, make this WEIRD for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. There is a nice paper about this:

    http://neuroanthropology.net/2010/07/10/we-agree-its-weird-but-is-it-weird-enough/

    As for the Dictator game,

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dictator_game

    there might be some cross-cultural research on this one, though I only found some about the ultimatum game, a different game:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultimatum_game

  23. @Trottelreiner, who wrote in-part: Err, make this WEIRD for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. There is a nice paper about this:

    http://neuroanthropology.net/2010/07/10/we-agree-its-weird-but-is-it-weird-enough/

    Heh a video reply. Apropos, I think.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=slKNd22GGaQ

    I realize that the following must inevitably raise a variety of perfectly good objections, but might it not be that there’s such a high rate of incidence of autism-spectrum disorders in “WEIRD” nations and cultures, simply because the parent generation is already pretty far from neurotypical?

    Thus, all of the Aspies can stop griping on the internet about the neurotypicals, where they live, there likely aren’t any.

    @TheEchoInside: thanks for the information, I have certainly heard very comparable views expressed by many of the Africans I encounter here in the vicinity of Washington DC. I frequently encounter young men of a post-college age, and many of them studied both in Africa and here and/or in Europe. Generally, the opinion is that international aid, especially that which is primarily funded from or controlled by the US and its close allies, is in fact really about making it easier to exploit resources. Additionally there is broad consensus that probably most of that aid only empowers and feeds corruption. Yet there does seem to be a lot of international aid that comes more from the people and less from the corporations and governments; the funding for the fight against HIV/AIDS seems to originate mostly with private funding to non-governmental organizations (“NGO”) such as Red Cross and other NGO with similar missions. I can only hope that someday the US will eject religious-organization influence sufficiently as to be willing to fund anti-HIV programs that rely primarily on Condoms, even if they are also a form of birth-control.


  24. As for carrying capacity, could you please enumerate the carrying capacity of the regions in question?

    That depends on how efficient the agriculture and society is. I doubt Ethiopia with it’s rampant soil erosion caused by loss of woodland (down to 3% from 30% in 1900) is sustainable in the longer term, due to population growth.

    Somalia has little arable land, most of the population are pastoralists and their numbers tripled in the last 40 years. You can’t improve yields from that very much..

    Both countries are known for famines.

    Don’t have any hard data though, no idea where to find them.

  25. Y.:

    That depends on how efficient the agriculture and society is.

    That’s exactly the point. For comparison reasons, Ethiopia has a population density of 74/km2, neighbouring Eritrea 43, and Sudan and Somalia both 16. While Egypt has 76, Israel has 371 and the Gaza strip a whopping 4000. So, in terms of population density, the regions in question are somewhat low.

    Improving agriculture, e.g. with something like the Green Revolution

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Revolution

    could be jeopardized by higher population growth, but in reality, in most cases something like demographic transistion kicked in:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographic_transition

    Thing is, both Ethiopia and Somalia have something of a reputation for civil war, which of course might be linked to dire demographics, but which also make a change for the better unlikely. Yeah, it’s all somewhat complicated.

    I agree that ‘shove in the food’ is the worst one can do, but that doesn’t mean sustainable development is impossible. Even with the demographic numbers at hand.

  26. Thomas Hardman:
    (I’m afraid of Americans)

    Well, thing is, when you look at the actual results, some cherished ideas about antisocial Westerners have to go. But then, a good part of the WEIRD demographics might be the Dirty Druggy Hippies and Sympathisants of Social Conservative nightmares.

    To elaborate, AFAIK in the iterated prisoner’s dilemma, the WEIRD populace was quite trusting and trustworthy, while in other cultures, you got something like ‘antisocial punishment’, e.g. to interprete the results somewhat, cooperation was seen as something like naivety and thus exploited.

    Don’t know how Western managers would fare on these tests, though…

  27. Re: Carrying Capacity of Ethiopia…

    Possibly the problem stems from a misguided Western suppression of local cultural tradition.

    I speak with quite a bit of tongue in cheek… but also not. Worrisome in any case.

    I first encountered this gem of… wisdom… back in the 1980s/1990s when that big Ethiopian famine caused a mass exodus of refugees, and for some reason, a very large number of said refugees wound up settled in the general area of Washington DC, where for unknown reasons a very large percentage either opened up restaurants or became taxi-cab drivers, or both. It was inevitable, I suppose, that there would be some culture conflicts. Yet we certainly didn’t have any reason to anticipate the traditions of the Hamar and related tribal culture.

    http://www.larskrutak.com/articles/Ethiopia/index.html

    […] One of these traditions is cattle-raiding. Cattle-raiding is a part of life and culture, and it is also a means for survival in one of the wildest and most inaccessible regions of the earth. For the Hamar, a family’s wealth is measured by how many cattle they own and most young men spend the year far from their villages in distant grazing camps near the Omo River lowlands which mark the boundary of their enemy’s lands. From time to time, whether in search of fresh meat, extra cattle for a wedding dowry, or new armaments a man will go on raids alone or with a “hunting friend” called misso to augment his stomach, herd, or to take the weapons and ammunition of those men he kills. More importantly, a man can solidify his high status in the Hamar community by killing a man from another tribe on a raid. One man from the Banna tribe, a group that lives to the north of the Hamar, said “I used to go kill people…I killed people in order to be famous. It was part of [our] belief that a man should not marry until he has killed either another man, or an elephant, a lion or a buffalo…and it is much easier to kill a man than a lion.” […]

    In some ways, this would tend to limit the population to the carrying-capacity of the admittedly low-yield landscape. It’s not quite war, not even quite “low intensity conflict”, it’s just a tradition.

    One of DC’s “City Paper” writers took a trip to Ethiopia for some reason, about the time that all of the refugees started arriving. He remarked that (in his humble opinion) Ethiopian women were among the most beautiful on the planet, and he also remarked that they seemed to him to be remarkably bloodthirsty. Evidently he had tried to get a few dates, and discovered that he couldn’t possibly be considered worthy. He didn’t have the scrotum of an enemy to present as a gift. From the page cited above:

    […]After a Hamar man has killed an enemy he struts back to his home village […] [F]ather greets his son by lifting up his right hand in which he already holds the gun and genitals (scrotum and penis if he can get them) of the slain enemy. These are then placed atop the gateway, and then the warrior is decorated with a garland of leaves from a local shrub. Women enter the scene and decorate the hero with beads and small leather belts that are tied around his head, elbows, and arms. […]

    Further, […] if a man who kills does not get scarred [signifying killing a non-Hamar man –ed] he will be insulted by his peers for not honoring tradition, and he will also have a difficult time finding a wife because he has shamed his family. Even worse, however, if a Hamar man gets scarred and it is proven that he did not make a kill, he will not be able to live in the village of his family because of the shame he has brought upon them. […]

    Contrast and compare with the formerly prevalent English tradition that one didn’t marry until one had got one’s own house, which presumably derived from a need to delay reproduction on an island with limited lands, and also contrast and compare with the traditional Irish shunning antipathy to unwed mothers.

    My question might be: if the influence of Western powers and Euro-centric Christian concepts convince the various tribes of Ethiopia (which used to include Eritrea) to abandon man-hunting and trophy-giving of male genitals as a prerequisite to wife-buying and fatherhood, can’t we blame these foreign practices for causing the Ethiopian population to soar beyond the carrying capacity of the land? Additionally, if “Christian morals” against man-hunting are effectively the cause of famines killing millions, aren’t those morals immoral? There’s another step farther in this line of reasoning that I simply won’t say, but I am sure anyone here can guess it.

    Should we — the “WEIRD” world, as defined above — continue to shovel in the food, or should we perhaps shovel in the birth control? Or should we shovel in the food conditional on the adoption of effective family planning with free birth control shoveled in before we shovel in the food? If we take this latter path, how much better or worse are our morals, compared to those of the Hamar?

  28. Thomas Hardman:
    Yet we certainly didn’t have any reason to anticipate the traditions of the Hamar and related tribal culture.

    Seems strange, but not that unusual for tribal pastoralists. The Sanskrit verb for ‘going to war, ‘gavisti’, etymologically means something like ‘searching for cows’. Remind me of my plan to do a rap version of the Rig Veda, substitute cocaine for Soma, humvee for chariot etc.

    Though the Hamar are something of a minority in Ethiopia, only about 0.1 % of the general population.

    As for Christianity, well, Ethiopia is about 60% Christian, though speaking with an eye on European history that never prevented a man from doing what a man had to do. That changed comparatively late…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peace_and_Truce_of_God

    Also note that in the past, the food supply was stable enough to do some empire-building…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Axumite_Kingdom

    Problem is, err, sex-specific late infanticide like raids and other traditional negative checks are likely insufficient, both for pastoralism and agriculture. The famine is over, less than 90 % of the tribe starved, let’s go on. But in light of the recent calamities, it’d be good to have a security margin. So curb up the production. This means more workers, e.g. more children, guess why both traditional pastoralists and agriculturalists have strange ideas about a woman’s rights? Well, you have to shelter your productive forces, raiding for women is not that unheard of, either, to go back to Vedic pastoralists, raiding for women and marrying them is an accepted mode of marriage in some Hindu laws. The main difference for pastoralists is that they stress male children, because looking after the herds is mens’ work. Please come in sex-specific infanticide etc. For agriculturalists, it means that women work early after birth, and children are weaned early. So no Prolactin contraception.
    And of course, we have to heighten the more mechanical means of food production, e.g. more land. There goes rthe forest…
    But while these measure enhace food production, they also increase food demand, so we are left with little net gain. And when the next famine comes, it’s not 90 that starve, it’s 900. So we need more food supply for a security margin…

    Looking at human reproductive strategies, the only possibility for change would be improvements in food production that

    a) institute a disconnect between population and food production
    b) demand highly skilled, e.g. educated workers.

    Which really leads to higher food security. At least till the petrol runs out and we have no Thorium reactors to step in.

    As for traditional ways of sustained agriculture/pastoralism, that worked well in the Ancient Mediterranean, right?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garrigue

  29. Trottelreiner:
    Problem is, err, sex-specific late infanticide like raids

    Sorry, my ADHD is showing (either for forgetting it first time or for getting it some hours later when I should be doing something else), but I forgot that raids etc. target mainly the male part of the population, which is not that much of a constraint for population growth. Especially if the cultures in question practise polygynie.


  30. If we take this latter path, how much better or worse are our morals, compared to those of the Hamar?

    Relativists would shoot down the question.

    Additionally, if “Christian morals” against man-hunting are effectively the cause of famines killing millions, aren’t those morals immoral?

    In Christian morality, I believe ,it’s the intention that counts.

  31. Y.:
    In Christian morality, I believe ,it’s the intention that counts.

    It depends somewhat on the strand of Christian thought. In some strands of Protestantism, there is the idea that even works with good intentions are worthless:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sola_fide

    OTOH, the concept of the virtuous pagan familiar to the part time Tolkien afficionados here makes little sense if works are worthless:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtuous_pagan

    Most Christians would agree that even a good intention doesn’t mean a deed is good, but then, AFAIK they would argue if the results are bad the intention wasn’t that good either, since good intentions lead to good results (see: tree and fruits). Whether this means good intentions lead to good results in any circumstances (somewhat magical) or that doing something that can lead to a bad result in spite of the odds is sign of a hybris and thus bad intentions (somewhat more rational) might depend on the Christian.

    Please note the problem of weighing intentions, deeds and results is not that unknown in Roman Catholicism:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casuistry#Casuistry_in_early_modern_times

    As mentioned, I don’t see low intensity warfare as that much of a negative check on reproduction, but if it was, one could argue that instigating it without reforming the reproduction system, e.g. late marriage etc. leads to a catastrophe and is thus not ethical. Combined with reforming the system, it is the the only ethical option. Or so it would go.

  32. @Trottelreiner, who wrote in-part: As mentioned, I don’t see low intensity warfare as that much of a negative check on reproduction, but if it was, one could argue that instigating it without reforming the reproduction system, e.g. late marriage etc. leads to a catastrophe and is thus not ethical. Combined with reforming the system, it is the the only ethical option. Or so it would go.

    I think that we might have the problem here, a sort of calculus of multiple variables, so to speak. (Not actually dealing in math, here.)

    The general setting is one in which there might be ten “good” (survivable) years and then perhaps two or three years where survival is difficult at best, and where survival is likely only possible to a few individuals or smallish groups.

    On the one hand, certain decisions in the culture can help the culture, as a whole, adapt and survive. On the other hand, certain decisions in the individual or the small group can help that individual or smallish group survive, even if much of the rest of that culture survives poorly, or altogether could perish (aside from these few). The problem, well known and fairly simple, is that the culture is carried forward by the survivors. So, how do cultures adapt, to individuals/small-groups taking routes that follow decisions that will almost certainly assure survival of those individuals/small-groups, but only at the expense of the larger culture?

    An old story, I suspect. One example might be the British approach to dealing with wartime shortages in WWII, they came up with ration books and also they cultivated a fortified ability to wait patiently in queue. Additionally, government came up with imaginative means to provide reasons to stand in queue and to actually get things in place to make it worthwhile to wait patiently in queue. I sometimes suspect that this might be how they survived so well, moreso than anything to do with armaments or choosing the right allies.

    I am tempted to ask the rhetorical question “but how do you get people to stand in line, who have never before even heard of getting in queue”. Yet to be fair, Medicins Sans Frontiers seem to have done a fairly good job. Or are we seeing evolution in action? Those who wait with the greatest patience are those whose infants and children will survive better? I think it’s more cultural than genetic, but that holds much promise in any case. Having learned that if you let things get out of hand, you will have to spend a lot of time in queue, relying on hope and on the efforts of outsiders… having had that experience of dependence on the good-will of others, perhaps they will be inspired to work harder to discover how to avoid a repeat of that experience. Meanwhile, I hope that Doctors Without Borders are educating the people as they stand in line.

    And of course, as we are all big fans of science fiction about foolish plans encountering fiendish plots, or some variation on the theme, we can hope that a cultural value of protecting women and children will supersede and override any sociopathic or militarist notion that it’s pointless to kill the men in low-intensity conflict, when it’s far more effective to destroy the rescue facilities which specialize in preserving women and children.

    I suppose that this is why we have the UN, to stop that sort of thing from happening? 😐

  33. I keep meaning to read this paper so that I can comment here, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. so here are my reactions and maybe people who have read the paper can give me spoilers

    * I agree the headlines reporting on it are misleading
    * I’m surprised that the not-religious group has such a range of reaction
    * for not-religious people, did they compare deconverted to never-converted?

    the methods
    * asking people to self report compassion doesn’t seem very reliable, so I am expecting to read the paper to understand more about how they gather that info and whether it has been used before and people agree that it’s not ridiculous, etc etc
    * if there is a difference in self reporting, I wonder if the groups understood the task in the same way. the way in which a task is framed could prime each group a different way
    * as an aside holy moly it seems so easy to prime people in ways such that you fuck up results. for example, having an option on an exam where someone checks male or female changes exam scores.

  34. On a similar note:

    Divergent Effects of Beliefs in Heaven and Hell on National Crime Rates

    Here’s the abstract:

    Though religion has been shown to have generally positive effects on normative ‘prosocial’ behavior, recent laboratory research suggests that these effects may be driven primarily by supernatural punishment. Supernatural benevolence, on the other hand, may actually be associated with less prosocial behavior. Here, we investigate these effects at the societal level, showing that the proportion of people who believe in hell negatively predicts national crime rates whereas belief in heaven predicts higher crime rates. These effects remain after accounting for a host of covariates, and ultimately prove stronger predictors of national crime rates than economic variables such as GDP and income inequality. Expanding on laboratory research on religious prosociality, this is the first study to tie religious beliefs to large-scale cross-national trends in pro- and anti-social behavior.

    I believe you’ve previously brought up the idea that societies with really vindictive, nasty gods had a longer shelf life than the ones worshiping the more “live and let live” types. This study would seem to confirm that assessment, or at the very least provide a possible explanation for this state of affairs.

  35. @Thomas Hardman


    I sometimes suspect that this might be how they survived so well, moreso than anything to do with armaments or choosing the right allies.

    You’re taking the piss, so to speak? Devil is in the details, and without American involvement, Britain would have been cut off and left to starve.

    Yes, UK did not experience a failure of public order. There was little liberty to speak of.

    If you don’t give people freedom, and don’t oppress them, they can’t really misbehave. Especially if it’s an ‘us vs them’ situation.


    So, how do cultures adapt, to individuals/small-groups taking routes that follow decisions that will almost certainly assure survival of those individuals/small-groups, but only at the expense of the larger culture?

    They don’t. Can you provide an example of such a situation? It seems… unlikely.

  36. @Y: “My point exactly”. So to speak.

    And no, I am not taking the piss; frankly I am a bit hazy on the matter. I’ve often heard it said from my parent generation (my father was US Navy “beach jumper” in the Mediterranean/North-African theater) that no matter what else might have been given to the British, their own capability to maintain good order made everything else work. Feel free to give me any detail to the contrary. You do make an excellent point about people being given effectively no latitude to make their own decisions, but otherwise being relatively non-oppressed. We get a lot of that here in the States these days, what with our suddenly having to become accustomed to fuel prices as a fraction of income, which compare to those seen in the Euro zone for the last decade or so. My own world has effectively become tiny, even with a small and fuel-efficient car; I can barely afford to drive around my neighborhood, much less can I go larking about the outer environs. I could fairly recently afford to put 50 litres in the fuel tank of the truck and haul a camper-trailer to the beach and fuel would be the least of my expenses. Now, fuel to go 180km to the beach costs as much as renting a hotel room for a long weekend. There are so many ways to impose a lockdown. Simple failure to subsidize is one of those; rail has been left by the wayside, so to speak. The better, perhaps, to enforce lockdown by allowing fuel prices to quadruple within a trifle more than a decade.

    But you ask something more interesting. quoting:

    [me] So, how do cultures adapt, to individuals/small-groups taking routes that follow decisions that will almost certainly assure survival of those individuals/small-groups, but only at the expense of the larger culture?

    [you] They don’t. Can you provide an example of such a situation? It seems… unlikely.

    Well, I could submit for your review every last cowboy movie ever made… and suggesting that the major subtext of all of that is the extension of the long arm of the law into the lawless places etc etc John Wayne ad infinitum etc. But I guess you’re probably actually responding as if I’d asked “how do cultures, themselves, adapt etc etc”. rather than asking “don’t they just throw more law-enforcement at emergent problems”.

    But I think I do see some adaptation from the culture itself, rather than a mere ramping-up of police presence. Where I live, I think I see people tending to sort out into cliques, a sort of fragmentation of the mainstream culture into the subcultures and with further segmentation or segregation within that. The church folks form cliques, the hippies form cliques, the gothics/emos form cliques, the yuppies and/or tradespeople as well, etc. And all of these seem to be increasingly ready to jump right into a bit of violence as seems necessary or appropriate. On a bit of a hair trigger so to speak. It’s as if the individuals and subgroups that are comprised in the greater culture — in such a widespread way that one might think of it as the culture itself — are increasingly ready for conflict.

    This isn’t a big surprise. But what worries me is that if they may have some conflict with some other group they have to consider such things as the size of the opposition group, their organization, possible resources, etc. Things slow down. The time required for assessment provides opportunity for negotiation. Yet for individuals that come into perceived conflict, they don’t have most of those considerations. Individuals coming into conflict with groups are… suppressed, in short order. Or so it seems to me, though I admit some bias which might seem to make me a less than prefect observer or commentator.

    Given the increasingly asymmetric nature of conflicts internal to society (as opposed to military actions between states) a trend towards suppression of individual action would not likely come as a surprise. Even the Romans had their common notions to the effect that no man should ever take any considered action without first seeking advice and counsel. I suppose that in the States it’s a sort of tension between the notions of “rugged individualism” and “social responsibility”, though both of those terms are strained in the present discussion (and the general present in which we live), given that rugged individualism is a notion peculiar to wide open frontiers and options for limitless expansion, rather than our overcrowded society which can exist only because of a plethora of vast and intergrading systems of systems.


  37. Simple failure to subsidize is one of those; rail has been left by the wayside, so to speak. The better, perhaps, to enforce lockdown by allowing fuel prices to quadruple within a trifle more than a decade.

    Lockdown by whom? The Man?
    International oil prices are not affected by US gov’t policy.

    America (and Canada too) is built mostly so.. spread out that higher fuel prices are hurting people, economically speaking. They’ll never go down, in fact, the recent lowering due to extreme Saudi effort is a purely temporary gift from them to the incumbent corporate representative in the White House.

    Rail can’t work in the US. It’s useful for places that have a high density of population: Japan, for example.

  38. @Y: A couple of points to make, if I may, and perhaps I can try to segue back more onto topic for this thread…

    Re: Lockdown via Fuel Costs: International oil prices generally aren’t affected by US government policy outside of a few things. First, a combination of allowing widespread exceptions to a policy of fuel economy, for example the corporate fleet economy for heavy vehicles such as SUV and minivans. That might be the lesser of problems. Secondarily, in the US trading and futures markets, back in 2006-2007 or so a great many Large Capital funds speculated deeply in oil, and as the slide in the housing markets began to accelerate, those LC funds shifted even more assets out of the risky deriviatives that would come to be known as “toxic assets”, and as oil was at unprecedented prices and seemed to be headed higher, it was the obvious place to go. Yet fuel cost rose to the point where it dominated consumer budgets, and the market slid back on housing, the bubble burst in earnest, almost everyone went into extreme fiscal conservationism of survival-mode, oil prices plummeted, and all of those LC funds had no place to go and the vicious spiral was locked in from all sides. Thus, a failure of government policy in two separate areas combined to destitute a lot of people here, not to mention bringing down Iceland etc., and kicking the rest of the world financial systems squarely in the face.

    Yet having seen this, aside from that “cash for clunkers” program, the government has done practically nothing to regulate fleet fuel economy standards, prices are holding fairly steady at the highest level that can prevail without once again staggering the economy. So who’s to blame? Very simplistically, “The Man” and the rich bastards that fund the campaigns. See also the whole “99 percent” and “Occupy Wall Street”.

    Re: Rail and Population: Please allow me to point you to a good jumping-in spot for our Urban Planning Community, Greater Greater Washington (DC). While I ordinarily argue along your basic line of “we’re too spread out to rely primarily on rail”, these folks do have a point when they press for “transit-centric high-density mixed-use development”. DC and the near suburbs already have a rather good and extensive heavy-rail mass transit system, MetroRail. Of course it’s being extended and of course it’s outrageously expensive in initial costs and the upkeep is always a day late and a few millions of dollars short. Yet people in the area absolutely depend on it and if everyone who relied on it had to get to work in a car, even a fully-packed carpool car, nothing would work because nobody could get to work, much less find parking when they got there. Due to legal restrictions on building height, we can’t ever be quite as dense a population as seen in Japan or New York City. Yet we definitely have the majority of the population here living in cities, and most of those have some sort of rail mass-transit and all have some sort of bus mass-transit.

    Rail is also essential for the main distributions of food and of course of heavy industry. Even for snail-mail and package delivery that hasn’t got a rush pricing, if there’s a rail route between the points, that’s what’s used. Even looking at the history of Land Grants during the US expansion westwards in the 1800s, you can see the seeds of the settlement patterns we live with today. Across the whole Midwest agricultural zone, everything is oriented towards putting the grain and livestock on trains (and Chicago is oriented to be where all of that agriculture is processed and re-shipped). Yet though the freight functions remain where necessary and profitable, outside of urban/suburban mass transit, passenger rail is almost extinct even as a tourist niche industry. Yet the history of suburbs from about 1880 to 1950 or so is a history of people settling a bit out of town along the passenger rail lines.

    Now that I’m done arguing the best points of the opposition, I’ll bridge through by saying that the single-passenger car running on the internal-combustion engine, that is a species of dinosaur that’s living close to the edge. Yet due to the sprawling nature of places such as the US, Canada, and probably Australia, non-rail modes for individual rapid travel will have to be developed. For example, where I live, a neighbor has a Chevy Volt that recharges from the grid where a main source of generation is the Calvert Cliffs nuke facility which is just now bringing online a doubled capacity. If this person drove to the beach, they could get halfway there on about $3.00 of electricity and about $10 .00 of gasoline. If the internal-combustion assist motor had alternative fuels, this might be an idea that could go far into the future. Or intercity bus transit with “superflywheel” power.

    And now back to topic, more or less. As it becomes more expensive to live in that far-flung petrol-powered lifestyle, more people will live in more-dense cities, where everything has to be “walkable” or reached by mass-transit, with almost no individual transportation available or usable. I wonder, would the religious, or alternatively the non-faith-driven, better survive living in hives like bees?

    And in keeping with the themes of the whole board, is science going to have to significantly alter the basic nature of what it is to be human, for the whole thing to not get seriously out of control? Look at the vast number of folks here who rely on perhaps several different medications in order to cope with the stresses and special requirements, who are otherwise in good health. Perhaps we can provide safe food, fresh water, and even fairly clean air to cities of tens-of-millions who will be born and live and die there. But can we provide lives worth living there? Lives that don’t need to be spent on drugs, I mean.

  39. If everyone drove a Chevy Volt, US would have to build something on the order of ~100+ new 1GW+ nuclear power stations to produce the energy to fuel these vehicles. If you take into account efficiency of energy conversion too.
    A huge amount of energy comes from fossil fuels.

    Alternative fuels are not a magic bullet either. You rely on photosynthesis. You know how inefficient that is, and you’ve seen the graphs of how much agricultural land would be needed to cover the requirements.

    Furthermore, driving up the price of food will kill off poor people in unsustainable 3rd world nations…


    So who’s to blame? Very simplistically, “The Man” and the rich bastards that fund the campaigns. See also the whole “99 percent” and “Occupy Wall Street”.

    (facepalm)

    You know fossil fuels are finite, the rate of use is growing due to formerly 3rd world countries industrializing and so on. Supply and demand.
    Finance industry isn’t making it better though, but the essential problem is growing use of a finite resource. Parasitism by finance industry isn’t helping anything, but what can you do?

    Finance has money and there are enough whores among elected representatives to make impossible any ideas for reforming the system.


    Look at the vast number of folks here who rely on perhaps several different medications in order to cope with the stresses and special requirements, who are otherwise in good health

    I doubt you can classify anyone who is relying on any kind of medication as ‘healthy’ or in ‘good health’.

    If they were, they wouldn’t need the medication. Been argued though that anti-depressants are a great way of keeping the population docile and harmless. Watts featured that in one novel of his.


    But can we provide lives worth living there? Lives that don’t need to be spent on drugs, I mean.

    Who is this ‘we’ you speak of?

  40. @Y: who is this “we”? Mankind in general, or hopefully some subset that actually thinks into the future a bit farther along than making rent next month. Or perhaps a class of people, of which the folks posting to this and comparable discussion boards might represent a random but passably representative subset.

    Good points about photosynthesis. Even with oil, it’s still the source, we’re just mining a couple of tens of millions of years of historical photosynthesis, in any case. I suppose that with more people watching a lot of fairly good documentaries on cable, such as on National Geographic Channel or Discovery Channel, more people are becoming more aware of the issues, and once people start becoming aware of it, they give it more thought, as a rule. And of course, if you do much thinking about the situation, life may seem a bit more bleak. Hence the increasing reliance on antidepressants and recreational chemicals, I suppose.

    Isn’t it a bit like an existentialist crisis, to be physically healthy but reduced to reliance on major medications to be able to function? Seriously, with existentialism one is supposed to recognize that some problems are entirely out of one’s own ability to control (or mostly so) and thus we might judge the character of the individual on their own ability to endure a position of absurd nature or proportions imposed from without. Additionally, they might be “special” enough to find a way that works better than anything else that has been tried, and if others will adopt (and perhaps improve upon) that mode, everyone’s life gets just the least bit better, but better a bit better than not better at all. (so to speak.) Yet sometimes one comes up against the hard limits.

    One fellow named Roy Beck has a little presentation called Immigration, World Poverty, and Gumballs (youtube). He’s pointing out that there are genuinely and almost unthinkably vast numbers of people who would all love to live as well as we do here in “the western world”. It’s a great visual display which could as easily be used to demonstrate how there are in fact limited resources that can only go so far… and in the meanwhile, in many places, the population continues to grow, with every 12 years or so adding another billion people. Clearly there are limits, natural or otherwise. Places such as Brazil, which nationally now has exactly replacement-rate fertility, as well as lots of sugar cane and an ethanol-fuel auto industry, hold out some hope. But you’re right about the rest of the world suffering if we try to convert agriculture to fuel production. The shift to ethanol in the 2006-2007 fuel price peaks is what increased foodstock costs especially in Southwest Asia… “Arab Spring” started, in part, because for every dollar you add to a bushel of grain, something like 10 millions globally are pushed to the edge of starvation or beyond. For now, though, Brazil seems to be taking care of its own needs without exporting unintended consequences.

    Pondering stuff like this is enough to drive almost anyone to taking antidepressants, though the fault lies not within themselves, but within the world, and the situation, in which they find themselves. It’s not functional, ultimately, to treat a world given over to increasing absurdity though taking antidepressants until you become indifferent. Yet what if that is effectively the only choice most people will be given?

    As you mentioned, forced antidepressant usage as crowd control was seen in “the Rifters” second book. I know I’m not the only person who has been thinking “it’s only a matter of time before ‘they’ actually start doing that”, the idea has certainly been circulated in SF circles since Huxley and Orwell, for sure. I wonder if anyone actually tests for it, at the water faucet rather than at the rivers, which here in the States frequently have measurable contents of cocaine, valium, premarin, and prozac.


  41. Pondering stuff like this is enough to drive almost anyone to taking antidepressants, though the fault lies not within themselves, but within the world, and the situation, in which they find themselves.

    As long as one acknowledges that humans are animals, and thus part of nature, and views the problem with a non-judgemental attitude, why be depressed? It’s simply a case of limited resources, bad governance and such. Moreover, since all the parts of the world that are in danger of famine are the ones where serious population growth has taken place, there is no danger of losing genetic diversity.
    Emotions have no place in sound decision making.


    Yet what if that is effectively the only choice most people will be given?

    He’s pointing out that there are genuinely and almost unthinkably vast numbers of people who would all love to live as well as we do here in “the western world”.

    They just need to be patient. Places like Vietnam, or China, will be fairly pleasant ones to live in once elites are somewhat more afraid of the population. China has the makings of a monumental blow-up. The elites there are extremely corrupt and getting incredibly rich. That doesn’t bode well for stability. It’s a pity.

    I don’t believe immigration is a good idea. You are aware of the number of cognitive biases people have. Mixing widely-differing cultures and phenotypes… is possible, but it doesn’t work as well as relative homogenity. The more diverse a society is, the more fault-lines are there for demagogues to exploit, and the more prejudices and tensions there will be. Of course they are not right, but they exist, , so the whole exercise seems to me like an elaborate effort at self-handicapping.

    Politics of multi-ethnic states are not pretty. On one hand, you have Canada, which appears somewhat sane. Russian Empire, and USSR were built on supremacy of one group over all others, and any efforts at indepedence were brutally suppressed. Austria-Hungaria is gone. It lost a war though, but even before that, it’s politics were not pretty. Italy is, and always has been a mess. We all know about Yugoslavia. Turkey has the Kurdish issue…

    Is there an example of a sane and stable multi-ethnic state? One that is not autocratic? Canada perhaps, but what will happen in a crisis?

    Lebanon was peaceful, and stable, until the balance of forces held.

  42. @Y: Do please forgive if I quote only selected bits, anyone interested can follow the thread backwards to get context.

    You wrote, in part: Moreover, since all the parts of the world that are in danger of famine are the ones where serious population growth has taken place, there is no danger of losing genetic diversity.
    Emotions have no place in sound decision making.

    Well, this thread did start off in the general consideration of “compassion”, or at least the increased self-reporting of such by persons claiming to be religious. Is Compassion really an emotion, or perhaps something like “enlightened self-interest”? Altruism often is seen to be really far less of magnanimity and more of benefiting one’s own kind even if the individuals aided aren’t very close kin.

    You mention genetic diversity. Among human beings, probably due to conservation of the FOXP2 gene (if we correctly understand its relationship to language and cognition), there is almost as little diversity or variance as seen among cheetahs, a notoriously inbred species. Be that as it may, with pretty much the majority of all humans who have ever lived being now alive among us, perhaps we’re as diverse as we could reasonably expect or hope for… yet please consider: if famine breaks out, or simple warfare of the type that knocks down distribution systems and floods the farmlands with cities-full of starving refugees who don’t know anything about agriculture, who will survive that? I suspect that “the Lord of the Flies” would amount to a best-case scenario under such circumstances. Can we dare imagine the culture of anyone reaching adulthood after perhaps three generations raised in the aftermath? I’d think, also, that genetically speaking we’d be looking a the results of a very hard darwinian selection cycle. A scary notion for such soft and imperfect persons such as myself.

    You also wrote: Is there an example of a sane and stable multi-ethnic state? One that is not autocratic? Canada perhaps, but what will happen in a crisis?

    I’d say that until fairly recently, the example would have been the USA, or Argentina. Or, let’s say that in the States we got things fairly well sorted as to resolving the differences between blacks and whites, by the late 1980s in most places, and then while the mainstream of the business and government/military communities became pretty close to color-blind to ethnicity, popular culture mutated. Now throw in very large increases in immigration, very diverse at first but then increasingly from one linguistic group if not necessarily ethnic group. (Maya, Inca, and Mexica may all speak Spanish but they have far different traditions surviving even to this day.) Until quite recently, we never had the uniquely Canadian approach of one country with two official languages. Yet here we are. As “proud Americans” it is bitter indeed to surrender to an invasion (mostly) from Mexico without there having ever been much more than a few skirmishes better characterized as friction between criminal factions, but that’s where we seem to be. So much for the politics never being pretty. It has definitely been the un-pretty. Yet thus far, it has mostly been non violent. I think Canada has mostly been able to follow that path, and did it before us, so I guess we’re following in Canada’s footsteps… except that I fear we are indeed drifting to the autocratic, with even the most liberal of Democrats tending towards thinking like Nixon.

    A sidebar point: I was living next to an expatriate Russian community in DC when the USSR was in the final days, and a little bit beyond that time. One really astute defector told me, in a fairly broken but nonetheless very informed English, that if the world had to worry about anything in the long-term of the “new free Russia”, it would be tribalism. I didn’t quite understand, and he had to hit the translation dictionary. He got back to me a day or so later, and said his word choice wasn’t the best. English didn’t easily enfold into one term the concept of “tribe == nation” as the Europeans have always known it. He was predicting a break-up along ethnic/linguistic lines, and wow, did he ever turn out to have been right. Prescient, really, and I wish more important and influential persons than my lowly self had heard and believed him.

    I just can’t see that happening quite like that in the States, though, as very few here consistently identify as to tribe, as if most of us “mutts” could even try such a thing. German-Irish-Scots-English-French-Italian-Polish-Native-American isn’t something to which one can as easily affiliate, not as easily as we can affiliate to mere “American”. Of course, we are still working on, and have far to go regarding, that bit about “sane”.

    Cheers,

  43. Um, if I may rush into this wonderful discussion uninvited, how could a human, in principle, operate without emotionally-defined goals ?

    Mind you, not an “intelligent agent” in general, but a recognizably human one.

    As to our kind host’s suggestion that our skymonster-worshiping peers are less influenced by emotions, I would suggest an alternate interpretation: our skymonster-worshiping peers are influenced by a different hierarchy of emotions, and that compassion-shmompassion thingamajig isn’t very high in that hierarchy.