Review of "The 10,000 Year Explosion" by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending

January 31, 2009

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I’m not sure I can add anything helpful in a review of this book beyond pointing to the interview which ends here (but links to the earlier parts are available) and recommending beginning with the “HNU: human neurological uniformity” section.  Here are some thoughts anyway.

The official version of human evolution includes the doctrine of what Mr Moldbug calls human neurological uniformity.  The doctrine, as described in The 10,000 Year Explosion is: “that human evolution stopped a long time ago-in the most up-to-date version, before modern humans expanded out of Africa some 50,000 years ago.”  The reason that this hypothesis has become a doctrine is that the end of evolution necessarily implies that all human minds by the same everywhere – HNU for Mr Moldbug or the “psychic unity of mankind” in the book.

The book sets out to destroy the belief that evolution stopped 50,000 years ago by chronicling evidence of more recent evolution – and thus presumably refuting the theory (unfortunately this doctrine has left the realm of science and entered into the realm of liberal ideology, it thus has nothing to fear from evidence which proves it wrong).  The authors go further and argue that human evolution has been faster during the last 10,000 years that it was in the past.  Perhaps they overreach a bit here, but the idea that the evolutionary process ceased completely 50,000 years ago smacks of creationism.

It seems that the weaker belief that evolution has, in fact, occurred in the last 50,000 years would be the null hypothesis.  After all, it’s obviously true.  People look different now – as the authors point out, you wouldn’t mistake a Finn for a Zulu.  The idea that all populations of humans that left Africa over the last 50,000 years all ceased to adapt to their surroundings, or evolved in the exact same way, seems impossible.  We know that skeletons from even 450 years ago have skulls that are shaped differently than our own, for example.  The authors compare European incursions into the Americas versus European incursions into Africa.  The Amerindians had not evolved defenses against diseases – they were promptly wiped out.  The Africans had defenses against diseases.  The African continent also had diseases that the Europeans did not have evolutionary defenses against.  The results speaks for themselves and are of tremendous consequence.

In simple terms, the authors’ contention is that mutations that have even small benefits (say that, on average, they give a person with the mutation 2.1 children as opposed to 2.0 children for those without the mutation) will have significant effects on the population after 50,000 years (roughly 2,500 generations).  Simple adaptations can have giant impacts.  Moreover, the total population of humans was growing enormously.  Mutations should have been much more frequent.  The authors’ devote a great deal of time to agriculture (indeed there is a high correlation between how early a society adopted agriculture and that societies economic development in recent decades).  They believe that adaptations that made people deal with the new, agricultural diet in better ways would have had more surviving children, thus spreading those variants.  One mutation they discuss at length is one that allowed people to tolerate lactose – which is common (almost universal) in Europe and India, but less common (almost non-existent) in many other regions.  Perhaps even time preference was a function of evolution – certain groups may have evolved to be more willing to delay gratification or become civilized by Hoppe’s definition.  This would have helped these groups become wealthier, over time, and therefore reproduce more.

Other things make clear that genetic material would not have been passed-down randomly as seemingly would be required by the hypothesis that we all have identical neurological systems.  Roughly 16 million present-day men in Central Asia are direct descendents of Genghis Khan.  In many societies, wealthy people were able to raise more children to adulthood.  Do we really believe that certain traits might not have some people more likely to, say, die in wars?  Much of the history of even the last 10,000 years would have seen genetic material spread through invasion and ransacking.

The authors sum up their own views, as follows:

Human evolution didn’t stop when anatomically modern humans appeared, or when they expanded out of Africa.  It never stopped—and why would it?  Evolutionary statis requires a static environment, whereas behavioral modernity is all about innovation and change.  Stability is exactly what we have not had.  This should be obvious . . .

Agreed.  The authors may overstate some points and make conjectures that will turn out to be incorrect.  But this larger point is certainly true.  In fact, the arguments that evolution stopped 50,000 years ago seem to get awfully similar to arguments made by creationists.

I would like to make one slight critique.  Near the end of the book, the authors castigate those who believe that human nature is fixed.  Most often those who argue against a fixed human nature are arguing in favor of more schooling to make everyone equally smart – or some such.  Certainly human nature is derived from genetics.  Equally certainly, we won’t see meaningful changes in this genetically derived human nature in our lifetimes.  So, for all intents and purposes, I see no harm in assuming that human nature is fixed.


Review of "Theory of the Partisan" by Carl Schmitt

January 31, 2009

I'm not sure I have much to add to the brief description of this book at Amazon.

It's sort of an update of Clausewitz – updated for the leaders who took Clausewitz's observations to their horrifying, logical conclusions (specifically, Lenin and Mao).

The book is worth the quick read.  The topic is certainly deserving of study.  It seems our military is always surprised to find that it ends up fighting partisans instead of traditional armies.  I'm still not sure anyone has figured out a way to end the partisan war of the 20th and 21st Centuries.

I have one objection which is that the book only went forward from Clausewitz and seemed to "discover" partisan warfare.  I'm not sure partisan warfare is so new.  I still the Romans developed the only way we know of to end partisan wars: kill enough people and destroy enough property to stop the war.  Modern rules of war prohibit this action and consequently modern armies seem unable to win battles against partisans.  I just don't think the topic can be complete without also looking backwards.


Review of "Gang Leader for a Day" by Sudhir Venkatesh

January 30, 2009

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This book is certainly interesting.  In short Mr Venkatesh spends several years, while getting his doctorate at the University of Chicago, studying a gang, the Black Knights.  Mr Venkatesh befriends the leader of small group, J.T.  Over the years, J.T. works his way up the gang hierarchy.  Over the same years, Mr Venkatesh also branches out from the gang to study life in the projects, the Robert Taylor Homes, in general.  Mr Venkatesh does not conclude the book with a summary of his findings; it is left to the reader to form his own impressions.

Life in the projects exists almost completely outside of the rest of society.  Police do not respond.  Ambulances will not come.  No one expects them to.  Mr Venkatesh expresses disbelief that no one even bothers to call them.  When the cops do show up, they don’t help.  Instead they demand some form of payment.  Everyone demands some form of payment to do anything.  In short, order is absent and the result is ugly (many disputes are settled by “militia”).

“Protection” as such is provided by gangs, a woman who “looks out” for other women, the leader of the Boys and Girls club was is a former resident and former military, and a cop who is a former resident.  In return, the gang and the woman take a cut.  The woman who helps other women has power from the Chicago Housing Authority (she is elected to be in charge of the project).  I found this interaction between officialdom and “leaders” of the projects to be most interesting.  In no time at all, the gang is big enough to get involved in Chicago politics.  Officialdom takes bribes, often not money, but just help to do a job they can’t or won’t do.  In exchange they direct money to the right places and help out the people who cow-tow to the leaders.  In exchange again, votes are delivered to the right candidates.  As so the cycle continues (perhaps this is the true cycle of poverty).

Behind all this, of course, is an incredibly violent culture.  The difference between life in projects and “normal” life are startling.  Relationships are basically polygamist or even totally communal.  Many of the higher-up men seems to have children by 4 or 5 (or more) women.

In this book, Hoppe defines civilization via time preference.  In short, an increased willingness to defer consumption is his measure of time preference.  When reading Hoppe’s book, that definition struck me as interesting, but somewhat too abstract.  When reading Mr Venkatesh’s book, the abstraction quickly turns into reality.  Life in the projects was so unpredictable that consumption had to take place almost immediately.  Life is truly less civilized.  Mr Venkatesh doesn’t point the finger at any specific causes for this lack of civilization.  But he doesn’t point out that life has not always been this way for blacks in America, specifically.  Nor does he point out that, historically, first world countries don’t have anarchic, third-world, lawless sections within their territory.  Something has happened in the last few decades that has made civilized society tolerate the existence of these patches of un-civilization within civilization.  The interaction between the officialdom of civilization and violent armies of un-civilization is truly creepy.

Finally, many people have criticized Mr Venkatesh for being immoral when working with the gangs.  Setting aside the issue of whether our government is then immoral for working with the gangs, I think Mr Venkatesh should be excused.  First, he comes across as amazingly naïve.  Second, he gave us a true picture of life that is close to us, but that we never see – that is certainly worth something.


Review of "The Revolt of the Masses" by Jose Ortega y Gasset

January 28, 2009

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I’ll post a few, somewhat random, thoughts from this book.  I have to begin with what is (I believe) the crux of Ortega’s worldview:

What I have said, and still believe with ever-increasing conviction, is that human society is always, whether it will or no, aristocratic by its very essence, to the extreme that it is a society in the measure that it is aristocratic, and ceases to be such when it ceases to be aristocratic.

The thesis of the book is that modern society (by the above definition) is in the processing of ceasing to be a society.  In other words, the masses – i.e. the non-aristocratic – are assuming control.

The masses, unfortunately, are vulgar.  The masses are intoxicated by the possibilities that modern science has made possible on one hand.   But, on the other hand, their vulgarity prevents them from knowing what to do with the possibilities.  So, the masses drift.

The masses do not understand the past.  This lack of knowledge jeopardizes civilization itself.  By analogy, it reminds one of a factory in the Soviet Union immediately after the revolution.  The workers were put in charge of the factory and the factory immediately failed.  Unfortunately, we are now discussing civilization itself, not the output of a factory.

As Ortega sums up his thesis:

The very perfection with which the XIXth Century gave an organization to certain orders of existence has caused the masses benefited thereby to consider it, not as an organized, but as a natural system.  Thus is explained and defined the absurd state of mind revealed by these masses; they are only concerned with their own well-being, and at the same time they remain alien to the cause of that well-being.  As they do not see, behind the benefits of civilization, marvels of invention and construction which can only be maintained by great effort and foresight, they imagine that their role is limited to demanding these benefits peremptorily, as if they were natural rights.

The rest of the book deals with Ortega’s discussion of what a State is and what it means to rule a State.  He goes off on a call for Europeans to again rule – to be the aristocrats.

Of the remainder, I found Ortega’s discussion of the masses to be the most interesting.  Particularly interesting to me was the chapter on specialization.  I couldn’t help but wondering if democracy cannot survive in an era in ever-increasing specialization, as Ortega puts it:

In politics, in art, in social usages, in the other sciences, [the specialist] will adopt the attitude of the primitive, ignorant man; but he will adopt them forcefully and with self-sufficiency [after all, he is a specialist in another area], and will not admit of—this is the paradox—specialists in those matters.


Review of "Crisis and Leviathan" by Robert Higgs

January 26, 2009

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It would be hard to read a timelier book than this one.

Higgs begins the book by analyzing various theories of why government grows.  He rejects none and accepts all, yet most emphasis is placed on ideology and crisis.  If the ideological conditions are present, government will grow dramatically in times of crisis and through a ratchet-effect, government will stay permanently larger.  Ideology alone seems sufficient, in Higgs explanation, to explain the slow, constant growth in government that happens outside periods (thought this proposition is not made explicitly in the work).  The ideology that Higgs has in mind is the same as the one described so well by Burnham.

Higgs definition of big government is certainly the correct definition.  Instead of being concerned with certain measurable variables, Higgs measures the size of government by analyzing government’s “scope of [] effective authority over economic decision-making, that is, the great extent to which governmental officials rather than private citizens effectively decide how resources will be allocated, employed, and enjoyed.”  If government is given new powers, but currently chooses not to use those powers, government has grown despite the fact that this growth will not show up in any measurable statistics.

After laying out an analysis of the growth of government, Higgs turns to history.  He uses the crisis of 1893-1896 and the (lack of) response by the Cleveland administration to show that crises do not necessarily lead to bigger government.  Higgs argues, convincingly, that the necessary ideological conditions were not present for growing government at that time.

Higgs then turns to crises which resulted in bigger government: WWI (the Progressive Era), the Great Depression, and WWII.  At some point between 1896 and the Progressive Era (c. 1914), the ideology that Burnham describes takes over.  From then on, all crises would lead to massive increases in the size and scope of government.  “The fundamental barriers of a restrictive ideology and the old Constitution had been battered down,” making the forces of Big Government irresistible.  (The Supreme Court effectively removed the old Constitution as the Court fell victim to the same ideology).

Higgs’ case for ideology is stronger than the case for crisis – perhaps the book should be renamed Ideology and Leviathan.  As Higgs puts it, “elites who could manipulate the dominant ideology had already predetermined much of the outcome of the political process.”  The crisis becomes merely a vehicle for the ideology.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to matter if the opponents of the dominant ideology win the war of ideas.  As Burnham showed, ideology is immune to evidence which falsifies premises of the ideology.  (Higgs distinguishes between elites who control the dominant ideology and deserve ridicule and other types of aristocratic and intellectual elite – a distinction which some people don’t seem to be able to understand).

Now, once can’t help but see the processes Higgs describes at work in the current crisis.  Especially when Higgs says stuff like this:

The [Second World] war had taught the American people many lessons, some true, some false.  Of the latter sort, a leading example was the Keynesian illusion, the belief that the federal government’s management of the economy, primarily by its fiscal policies, can prevent business declines and stabilize the economy as it grows.

Er, nevermind.  Apparently that Keynesianism thing isn’t wrong anymore – at least not when it conflicts with the dominant ideology.

Higgs comments on the “revolving door” between the Pentagon and major defense contractors (apparently something that hasn’t changed).  One can’t help but think of the new revolving door between Wall Street and Treasury.

I can’t leave this review without commenting on a major flaw in Higgs work.  He doesn’t analyze the Civil War.  The Civil War doesn’t fit Higgs’ analysis.  Again, according to Higgs, sometime around 1910 or so the dominant ideology in the US became a pro-government ideology.  Prior to this point, crises did not result in bigger government and after this point crises were used to increase the size of government.  Throughout the analysis, ideology seems to be a necessary condition.  Higgs then needs to explain the growth of government during the Civil War – which was certainly nothing to sneeze at – in the absence of the pro-government ideology.  Was the North particularly prone to the pro-government ideology?  Was the crisis so large that ideology was no longer a necessary condition?  A full account demands an analysis of this, most fundamental, crisis.


Review of "Democracy: The God that Failed" by Hans-Hermann Hoppe

January 26, 2009

I got a lot of interesting ideas from this book.  The book is divided into thirteen stand-alone chapters.  Much of the book is redundant, but not fatally so.  Hoppe provides his own summary of the first major ideas in the book:

Monarchical government is reconstructed theoretically as privately-owned government, which in turn is explained as promoting future-orientiedness and a concern for capital values and economic calculation by the government ruler. . . . Democratic government is reconstructed as publicly-owned government, which is explained as leading to present-orientedness and a disregard or neglect of capital values in government rulers, and the transition from monarchy to democracy is interpreted accordingly as civilizational decline.

Hoppe shows that limiting a public (i.e. democratic) government is impossible.  Private government will inherently be limited.  The owner (e.g. king) won’t tax beyond the point that lowers the value of the country.  The owner will protect property, since he wants his own property protected.  He will want to reduce crime, as crime negatively impacts the overall value of the country.  The people who are ruled have no chance of becoming rulers and are therefore more on-guard against abuse of rulers.  Wars are seen as the rulers wars, and not the people’s war (total war is a 20th Century, democratic concept).  Finally, a private owner will not undertake too much debt, as it is his (and his family’s) debt to re-pay.  So we see:

From the viewpoint of those who prefer less exploitation over more and who value farsightedness and individual responsibility above short-sightedness and irresponsibility, the historic transition from monarchy to democracy represents not progress but civilizational decline.

I enjoyed Hoppe’s dismissal of the argument that hereditary rules are not always good rulers.  Here’s Hoppe:

The selection of government rulers by means of popular elections makes it practically impossible that any good or harmless person could ever rise to the top.  Prime ministers and presidents are selected for their proven efficiency as morally uninhibited demagogues.  Thus, democracy virtually assures that only bad and dangerous men will ever rise to the top of government; indeed, as the result of free political competition and selection, those who rise will become increasingly bad and dangerous individuals . . .

Or, more tersely:

Competition in the production of goods is good, but competition in the production of bads is not.  Free competition in killing, stealing, counterfeiting, or swindling, for instance, is not good; it is worse than bad.  Yet this is precisely what is instituted by open political competition, i.e., democracy.

Hoppe defines civilization as a fall in the rate of time preference.  Government actions against property, unlike crime, permanently increase future risk and lower expectations of the rate of return on future investment.  Welfare state subsidizes bad behavior, leading to more of it.  These factors combine as the argument against government – it leads to less civilization.  State cannot be economically for these reasons or ethically justified, since it must engage in criminal-type behavior.  At least that is Hoppe’s take.

Instead of government, Hoppe proposes that we live under the natural order, which would be a series of city-states ruled by the natural aristocracy.  Hoppe is somewhat thin on exactly how this would work.  Unfortunately he doesn’t consider other forms of private states, besides sole proprietorships (monarchy) and perhaps partnerships (monarchies with strong aristocracies).  Why not consider the most successful type of private ownership, joint-stock companies?

Hoppe has a very interesting chapter on libertarianism and conservatism that gets to the heart of my neofusionism.  Conservatism and libertarianism in the US are confused and the confusion is due to democracy.  Hoppe picks on Buchanan on the conservative side.  Buchanan’s program is described as national socialism (which is what it is).  Buchanan does not recognize that the cultural deterioration he decries is a consequence of the welfare state.  Conservatives cannot accept the welfare, as they do, and expect a reversal of recent cultural trends.  As Hoppe concludes:

Thus, if one is indeed concerned about America’s moral decay and wants to restore normalcy to society and culture, one must oppose all aspects of the modern social-welfare state.  A return to normalcy requires no less than the complete elimination of the present social security system: of unemployment insurance, social security, medicare, medicaid, public education, etc.—and thus the near complete dissolution and deconstruction of the current state apparatus and government power.  If one is ever to restore normalcy, government funds and power must dwindle to or even fall below their nineteenth century levels.  Hence, true conservatives must be hard-line libertarians (antistatists).

Hoppe then turns to libertarianism to show why it is conservative.  He believes libertarianism was initially misunderstood and hijacked by those who misunderstood it.  The movement was taken over by people who believed libertarianism was a philosophy that justified and allowed all behavior.  Instead as Hoppe puts it:

The restoration of private property rights and laissez-faire economics implies a sharp and drastic increase in social “discrimination” and will swiftly eliminate most if not all of the multicultural-egalitarian life style experiments so close to the heart of the left libertarians.  In other words, libertarians must be radical and uncompromising conservatives.

Private property, for Hoppe, means discrimination.

Finally, as a brief aside, here’s Hoppe’s indictment of policy libertarianism:

In fact, there must never be even the slightest wavering in one’s commitment to uncompromising ideological radicalism (“extremism”).  Not only would anything less be counterproductive, but more importantly, only radical—indeed, radically simple—ideas can possibly stir the emotions of the dull and indolent masses.  And nothing is more effective in persuading the masses to cease cooperating with government than the constant and relentless exposure, desanctification, and ridicule of government and its representatives as moral and economic frauds and imposters: as emperors without clothes subject to contempt and the butt of all jokes.


This is satire,

January 25, 2009

right?

The argument: if you can’t fix the problem with increasing money supply then maybe you can fix the problem with decreasing money demand.  
You need to convince people not to hold money.  You need to convince them that cash is trash.
And to do that you need to convince the public that there will be inflation (the above gross leverage argument notwithstanding).  
To do that the Federal Reserve has to be credibly irresponsible.  It is not enough to print a couple of trillion dollars (which they have) because everyone thinks (with some justification) that they will suck back the money supply when the crisis is over.
No – you have to be more visibly reckless than that.  You have to really convince people that there will be inflation.