The dangers of “cooperation” in a Malthusian world

by on September 6, 2014 at 8:49 am in Books, Food and Drink, History | Permalink

Sapiens [the new book by Yuval Noah Hariri] devotes large sections to unsparing accounts of the domestication and factory farming of cows, pigs and chickens. This, he contends, has made them some of the most genetically “successful” creatures in history but the most miserable too.

It is an interesting question how much that will prove to be the equilibrium more generally, namely the genetic superiority of slaves because they can reap more external investment.  After all, capital is more productive today than in times past, so evolution might now produce more slaves.  Here is another bit from John Reed’s coverage of the lunch interview with Hariri:

What allowed humans to become history’s most successful species, he [Hariri] argues, was our ability to construct and unify small groups behind certain “fictions” – everything from national legends and organised religion to modern value systems like human rights, and the modern limited liability company with thousands of employees and vast credit lines at its command.

…I tell Harari I like the idea of fiction as the supreme human construct.

That is from the FT’s lunch with Yuval Noah Hariri.  If I recall correctly, I pre-ordered Sapiens from UK Amazon.

1 prior_approval September 6, 2014 at 9:26 am

‘namely the genetic superiority of slaves because they can reap more external investment’

Or the necessity of it to even reproduce, which would seem to contradict the idea of ‘genetic superiority.’ Our ‘slaves’ are unsurprisingly hobbled – slavery tends to be like that.

‘What allowed humans to become history’s most successful species’

If a hive species has a sense of humor, ants would find such statements hilarious.

2 William Newman September 6, 2014 at 11:00 am

Not to slight the extraordinary success that ants have enjoyed for tens of millions of years, but if the ants could reason about what has been going on since the Industrial Revolution, they would indeed worry.

E.g., look how hard ants try to reshuffle their genes across many miles, and to let an anthill create a descendant anthill many miles away. This is not an accident or an idiosyncrasy: there is a large evolutionary payoff to both those things. The way that modern humans routinely do the same shuffle-genes and plant-colonies things across thousands of miles (and are arguably on track to do the same trick across millions of miles in a few generations) should be alarming. It’s roughly the same way that Victorian-era scientists would naturally have been alarmed to learn of an inscrutable Martian species which reproduced slowly and which had a much lower population density than humans did but which was also far more intelligent than humans. Being qualitatively better at a trait that is important for long-term progress is a big deal.

3 prior_approval September 6, 2014 at 11:08 am

‘but if the ants could reason about what has been going on since the Industrial Revolution, they would indeed worry’

Or not, as this quote illustrates – ‘”Ants in particular are arguably the most aggressive and warlike of all animals. They far exceed human beings in organized nastiness; our species is by comparison gentle and sweet-tempered. The foreign policy of ants can be summed up as follows: restless aggression, territorial conquest, and genocidal annihilation of neighboring colonies whenever possible. If ants had nuclear weapons, they would probably end the world in a week.” -Bert Holldobler & Edward O. Wilson, Journey to the Ants’

We measure according to our own standards, and there is no question that humanity has at least the potential to leave this planet and live elsewhere. We haven’t done it yet, however.

4 Bacterium September 6, 2014 at 12:01 pm


5 Millian September 6, 2014 at 9:28 am

Grass is the most successful species. It occasionally loses out to humans making deserts and cities, but in the long run, I bet on grass.

6 andrew' September 6, 2014 at 10:01 am

It is grass and humans versus trees.

7 Thor September 6, 2014 at 2:21 pm

My wife told me to get out into the yard today and take the fight to the grass, with a special gas powered cutting device that one pushes, if you can believe that. But once I read that we’re doomed in the long run, I decided to decline.

8 Rich Berger September 6, 2014 at 7:04 pm

I don’t believe your wife bought that for one minute.

9 Nathan W September 7, 2014 at 11:43 am

Nor would the local bylaw officers in many municipalities.

10 Steven Kopits September 6, 2014 at 9:49 am

That “fiction” is principal-agent theory. Because groups have increasing returns to scale, individuals who can cooperate in groups have an advantage.

However, in a group, people have to play roles, assuming the ‘fiction’ of agency. Consider a group where collective effort prevails: the football team. Here, roles are highly specialized, and it is everyone serving their particular role properly than assures group success. A left tackle does not get to throw the football; only the quarterback does. It’s just the way it is, because experience has shown that’s what’s best for the group.

However, the group has issues related to decision-making authority (who can make what decisions how) and the allocation of group rewards, effort and risk. Who should call the plays? The head coach? Offensive coordinator? Quarterback? How is risk and reward allocated? For example, how much is a right tackle worth as a share of team revenues? What payment or team membership is that person entitled to if they are injured?

Agency has to play a very strong, deeply felt, role. In a war, those contemplating their group loyalty are apt to get killed or get their team killed. Thus, when the grenade lands at the squad’s feet, the participants must have the immediate impulse to sacrifice themselves in the interest of the group. You can’t do that on a on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand basis. It has to be instinctive. So that fiction of agency must be strong, that is, it must have a very strong selector in evolutionary terms.

But of course, our allegiance to any group is not only absolute, but arbitrary, at least at any given point in time. Why does one like the Colts rather than the Patriots? It’s ultimately arbitrary, but the emotions are powerful nonetheless. Thus, agency involves not only a powerful fiction, but indeed, myth and legend. It is necessary to the survival of the group.

That’s the theory of conservatism, in a nutshell.

11 The Anti-Gnostic September 6, 2014 at 10:20 am

So what explains K-selected liberals’ pathological altruism for r-selected Others? Something along the lines of Cochran’s germ theory?

12 david September 6, 2014 at 1:31 pm

at contemporary technological levels, successful societies are those which have evolved large and complex bureaucracies that are highly effective at convincing successive layers of agents to put loyalties to the state bureaucracy above loyalties to tribe and family. If the efficient way to do this is inculcating a belief in egalitarianism, then egalitarianism be it. Maintaining eunuchs and celibate priests worked for smaller bureaucracies but their military relevance ended perhaps around Napoleon

the postwar mass industrial society represents an especially large explosion in material welfare that stems directly from the ability of supermassive bureaucracies to enforce uniformity and standardization on an unprecedented scale.

this is not always true – there have been other times where it is much better to be part of a nation of steppe horse-archers united by blood and tribe, than to be only slightly more technologically advanced. But grapeshot doesn’t care whether the people who assembled it are related to the artillery officer who gives the command to fire

13 ladderff September 6, 2014 at 3:04 pm

very interesting comment david

14 david September 6, 2014 at 3:10 pm

credit due to Gellner

15 ladderff September 6, 2014 at 3:29 pm

ok will read further

16 ladderff September 6, 2014 at 3:32 pm

Going to be hard to convince this right-winger that egalitarianism is the only/best way to achieve competitive scale though.

17 david September 6, 2014 at 4:39 pm

eliminating tribe and family without enforcing a widespread civic religion in individualist equality results in guanxi networks and patronage, and clientelism has been very effective at (e.g.) hobbling the former spanish empire relative to that of the british

the state must say: no, the onus is on you to prove to me that you were fair in your administration of the civil service (and, in capitalist societies, the means of production), not to merely act in a plausibly fair manner. and correspondingly – because it is exceedingly inefficient to enforce behaviour by continual threats – most people in positions of trust must likewise believe that they have a moral obligation to do so, that it is an outrage to be found intentionally failing to do so, and anybody who goes so far as to deny that derived duty must be driven from institutions of power. the problem is not really inequality (many successful regions and states are deeply unequal) inasmuch as that widespread advocacy or defense of a plausible mechanism of inequality is going to hide an accumulating problem of patronage from the mechanisms of the state. j’accuse is partially about racism, but it is also about the corruption of the bureaucracy

18 TMC September 6, 2014 at 10:49 pm

Not at all. Conservatives already believe in egalitarianism. Equality of outcomes is completely different of course.

19 Nathan W September 7, 2014 at 11:47 am

It is worth noting that, in a freedom-loving society, this presupposes a general freedom of constituent entities to generally do as they please within this structure, in particular because they have the most extensive knowledge of their own interests and in a related manner are able to profitably exploit their knowledge of what other people want.

20 david September 6, 2014 at 2:37 pm

It’s worth noting that Western norms require you to abjure nepotism from a position of trust in favour of your siblings, cousins, or even your own children, which is far more startling than requiring you to abjure discrimination in favour of someone several cousins away at minimum. Of course actual outcomes differ, but formal genuflection to the principle is required.

21 Mayor Richard J. Daley September 8, 2014 at 7:59 am

If you can’t help your friends, who can you help?

22 Nathan W September 7, 2014 at 11:45 am

sounds maybe interesting. Care to explain yourself? I’m not familiar with the terminology or use of it.

23 Pensans September 6, 2014 at 10:10 am

Groups are not fictions. Groups do not have to be organized around fictions, but may be oranized around truths.

24 dead serious September 6, 2014 at 11:38 am

They don’t have to be, true. But in humans they usually are.

“That guy is strong, he must know what to do.”
“That guy is smart, he must know what to do.”
“That guy has leadership, he must know what to do.”
“That guy is pious, he must know what to do.”


25 Nathan W September 7, 2014 at 11:54 am

Hence, the benefit of critical thinking.

Throughout much of schooling, we are taught to trust certain types of sources. Eventually, well educated and knowledgeable people are able to recognize the different between total BS from a credible source from something solid from an unknown entity.

It should be a matter of pride for national education systems to “produce” citizens who do not require directives such as “include a minimum of 2 government sources, 2 academic sources and 2 media sources, and a total of at least 10 sources” to be able to write credibly about an issue. In the meantime, while following rules such as these, it should be encouraged for students to foray into independent analysis of sources in research, whether in being critical of “official” or academic information, or in recognizing good argumentation when they see it.

Truth through repetition should forever be a cause of great skepticism. One of the first signs of BS is the need to repeat something incessantly. If the repetition is geared towards something like “don’t be such an butthead”, i.e., “please be a decent human being”, then this may be highly tolerable.

26 TMC September 6, 2014 at 10:49 pm

Seems like ‘fictions’ should be replace by ‘ideas’.

27 newbart1 September 6, 2014 at 10:18 am

> “fiction as the supreme human construct”

… ahhh, metaphysics

fiction is the only human construct and the essence of “life”, but that might be fictional too

the only non-fiction thing you know for certain is that your own consciousness exists (Cogito Ergo Sum); “reality” (non-fiction) is otherwise unknowable.
So everything i state here is fiction, including this sentence.
(Square-Circles are so thought provoking)

28 Stirner September 6, 2014 at 12:21 pm

You call them fictions, I call them spooks.


29 dirk September 6, 2014 at 2:18 pm

Sounds like a good argument for public policy that would make capital less productive.

30 Nathan W September 7, 2014 at 11:56 am

From a strictly short termist investment point of view, capital is “less productive” when labour gets paid more.

But when you pay people more, they invest more in themselves, both due to capacity and incentives. Their high cost acts as a major stimulus to make capital more efficient. But you may not notice the difference when looking at next quarter’s earnings report. Perhaps two or five years down the road, upon retaining more of your best staff?

31 Marie September 6, 2014 at 4:38 pm

So we’ve just entirely given up on the idea of biological evolutionary change being something that happens over, say, a kind of really, really long time?

I have fun with the whole thing where we speculate on why groups of people alter their behavior, too. But could we maybe call it something other than evolution? Like, dunno, “change”?

32 TMC September 6, 2014 at 10:51 pm

+1 Right to the point, as always.

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