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Tradition Is Smarter (2018) (scholars-stage.blogspot.com)
154 points by andrenth 6 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 100 comments

> I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.

BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit, an urban rail system) uses non-standard rail gauge, 5 feet 6 inches. US standard rail gauge, 4 feet, 8.5 inches, would be much cheaper to use as there is a large market in standard equipment. Non standard BART equipment must instead be built custom, greatly increasing its cost.

With that example in mind, the reformer wants to clear away this dumb design decision and indeed the East Bay Antioch extension uses standard gauge. The more intelligent type of reformer may ask If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away.

The trouble is that no one can remember why the non-standard gauge was chosen. Sometimes design decisions aren't smarter. They're just old.

I seem to recall that it was deliberately chosen for incompatibility, so that a BART train could never be run on a regular railroad track.

Why? Partly politics. Southern Pacific Railroad was the existing railroad in San Francisco. They had an existing commuter rail operation (which, if I understand correctly, later became Caltrain), and they didn't want the headaches of BART trains on their tracks. They were already losing money on their existing commuter operation. Their money came from hauling freight.

But the other reason was safety. If two trains collide, and they're both passenger trains, they'd better be built to similar collision standards. Otherwise the stronger train will destroy the weaker, and there are people in the weaker train. And if there are freight trains on the same tracks, then the passenger trains have to be built to standards such that a collision with a freight train isn't a massacre. (By the way, this is part of the distinction between "light rail" and regular rail. They should never be on the same tracks.)

> If two trains collide, and they're both passenger trains, they'd better be built to similar collision standards.

Is this _really_ a concern? This sounds crazy to me, how likely are trains to actually collide? Are they not monitored and tracked? Do they not have safety systems?

BART has a safety system that can detect the presence of trains based on the electric potential across the tracks (since the wheels are metal). There was a collision back in the 1970s or 1980s because the repair vehicles had rubber wheels are were therefore not visible to the safety system. A BART train collided with one of the repair vehicles and killed one of the repairmen.

They do have signals and safety systems, but things go wrong anyway. Cast your eyes over the last 10 years worth at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_rail_accidents_(2010%E...

Romania, December 2019: two trains collide almost 50 injured.

And what is more monitored and tracked than airplanes? December 2019: "Wizz Air A320 within seconds of head on collision with an Air Europa Express flight over Spain"

Airplanes are not tracked( as in, they run on tracks) so they have more options as to where they might be. With trains it's far far simpler to position. Being on a collision course should be obvious.

Funny, I'm form Romania too, and CFR is a shining example of mismanagement. I really doubt we can extrapolate a general rule from what is happening with CFR. Precautions and some automated safety systems could surely avoid this.

Trains are tracked, which means they can't get off a collision course. A plane can turn in 2 directions in each of 2 dimensions.

I've never heard of this and don't see how it's possible given that BART requires an electrified third rail to operate at all. Caltrain uses locomotives.

You can have a third rail beside tracks that diesel locomotives use.

That depends on the width of rolling stock.

Plus, I've never seen electrified rail where the right of way is easily accessible by the public and has street-level crossings, and I can't imagine how that could work.

> And if there are freight trains on the same tracks, then the passenger trains have to be built to standards such that a collision with a freight train isn't a massacre. (By the way, this is part of the distinction between "light rail" and regular rail. They should never be on the same tracks.)

Yeah, otherwise every few years we might end up with a collision with the kind of death toll you see in a normal month on the roads.

There is kind of an official explanation for the non-standard gauge:

Western Railroader June 1965 Vol 2806 Issue 305: “Clara (the test car) arrived at Concord from Sacramento in a special Sacramento Northern train. She rode on a WP flat car instead of on the rails since she has a 5′ 6″ gauge, nearly a foot wide thant the 4″ 8.5″ standard gaguge used by most existing transit systems and all the nations railroads. Parsons Brinckerhoff- Tudor Bechtel, the districts consulting engineers, said that exhaustive studies show the wide gauge provides great stability and smoother riding qualities for the rapid transit trains.” [0]

However, the most likely explanation is that during planning, dubious reasons like the one above were given to convince officials that a non-standard gauge would be better. After it was built, the company which build the first rolling stock had a monopoly. So the reason most likely is classic lobbying.

[0] http://www.bayrailalliance.org/question/why-does-bart-use-wi...

"In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

G.K. Chesterton - The Drift from Domesticity

Yes, that's the beginning of the article. Although according to Wikipedia, you gave the name of the chapter, and the article gave the name of the book.

Yes, but you really have to make sure that it is indeed just and accident of history with no other side effects. I can imagine a case where some of the BART tunnels are too short for some trains that run on standard gauge rails, and you don't want someone to accidentally run a standard train over those tracks and get stuck. There is no way to know this without looking. We cannot imagine all contingencies, but we should probably at least look for the ones that we can imagine.

My point was that the conservative approach puts the burden of proof on the new after setting up a bit of a straw man with the reformer. I like the marketplace of ideas instead which favors neither the new nor the old.

Oh it's very much still the marketplace of ideas. It's simply advising buyers in such marketplaces to appreciate track record and acknowledge their own possible ignorance when making "purchases."

As it should be. Doing things as have they always been done means we haven't killed everyone yet. That is quite an achievement when you consider just how hostile to life nature is.

> 5 ft 6 in / 1,676 mm, a broad gauge, is the track gauge used in India, Pakistan, western Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Argentina, Chile, and on BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) in the San Francisco Bay Area.


So actually it _is_ common - mostly in and around India.

So maybe here is the original vision for the BART: https://youtu.be/fWk36h9-meE


Youre assuming the context of that decision was purely an engineering process, when in-fact it was a political process.

You seem to think we should value one kind of good decision over the other.

I honestly don’t think the world works that way. Check out the O Ring & Feynman. Our social dynamics are often very terrifying and seemingly draconian, if it wasn't for a general trend of improvement and increased quality of life.

Reminds me of the railway gauges, space shuttle and horses ass story, can't find the original link but here's one on reddit which summarizes it, hope i'm not spreading some urban myth: https://www.reddit.com/r/Jokes/comments/5mh5mv/railroad_trac...

In Dublin, Ireland we have a light tram system called the Luas.

There is a green line and a red line -- they don't connect but nearly do as they are close. They have different guages.

It's planned that one of the lines will be upgraded to a full metro in the long term however many people think that such a fundamental descision was a simple oversight.

Did anyone ever bother asking the Tukanoans why they process the manioc like that?

I wash my hands, I can't see bacteria or germs, I've certainly never seen a anyone die directly because of unwashed hands, and it's just a slow statistical increase in sickness if a whole bunch of people stop...

but I don't wash my hands because I observed my elders, or because some cultural figure told me it was merely the way of our people. Some just told at some point to wash my hands cause otherwise people get sick, and if I had had questions they'd have mentioned germs and stuff.

Like did any one check if the Tukanoans know manioc will slowly poison them otherwise? I know it's a bit of a fuzzy line but is that process "tradition" or is it "technology"

I think part of the why to your question is that Its deceiving to view the human as a singular entity.

There isnt a you, practically, there is infact an Us, and as an organism, the rule of large numbers wins everytime, we select for what we think is right as a social collective/organism.

That kind of thinking is accepted in science, but not wide spread amongst the singular individuals.

Older cultures didnt need to check for anything, decisions probably evolved through intra generational symbolism and stories about ghosts and evil spirits. Life wont answer the why, it just is, and if we push itll just eat us.

In the same breadth, science is nature too. So whatever works, really.

> we select for what we think is right as a social collective/organism.

This is simply not true. Our values are something the elites ( not all necessarily but enough ) bestow or force upon us with either carrots or sticks. Look at any cultural, social, legal, etc values in society. It wasn't the "collective" that decided it, it was the few elites who convinced us to believe in it. Like Moses coming down the mountain with those tablets, we are told what is right or wrong, we don't decide it.

Their behavior is part of the organism. Each part of society is trying to maximize for its own good. I dont define good and i dont even try .. what is right is an amoral thing and what is right is simply what is selected for over time, thats actually biological, you seem to maybe want to ethically justify it on a personal level, but thats irrelevant, as an individual, you are a spec, wood to a fire. You can only do you, to the best of your abilities. You may wish for the universe to care, and thats a soft sentiment. The closest youre getting here is maybe this conversation, and the attitudes of those who know and love you.

Think about the world for the past two thousand years, without mass media, with a state-controlled religion, with vast majority of the population poor and illiterate.

They , realistically, could not take part in the process.

Well i see how you're categorizing into rich and poor, but i see a continuum.

The rich were poor before they became rich. Social media, religion, government, even your own thinking, and mine, its all nature and happening.

Also if you would entertain me, try and think about the actual relevance of someone like those rich people you are speaking about, and embed that into the universe’s timeline. I think the amount of importance and significance given to this group of people is absurd. Elon Musk isnt some Rothchild, niether is Bill gates, or warren buffet.

The rich are a by product of their environment as it is embedded in time and space. The rich are just one element of the machinery which includes the poor, just like your body has different parts tasked to do different things, people of different temperaments will grow to be a certain thing, and even expand in time as families, maybe dynasties, which histories has seen rise and fall like the waves of a an ocean ebb and flow.

What saddens a bit is thinking maybe you don't see your own potential, may i ask where you see yourself? Rich, poor? Powerful, powerless?

I am talking about a medieval society, where majority of the population were peasants or serfs, and the nobility had their status enshrined in law. This is not an ambiguous situation.

In Russia a kilo of honey was worth more than a serf, so was a good horse.

> Each part of society is trying to maximize for its own good.

No. Only the elites are even capable of reasoning about their own good nevermind trying to maximize it. The vast lower class are incapable of even formulating a concept of "their own good". As orwell so cleverly put it, the proles are pretty much animals, they aren't able to organize and think about their own "good" no more than livestock in an industrial farm are able to think about their own good. If the proles were capable of maximizing their own good, they wouldn't be proles, they would be the elites.

"As the Party slogan put it: 'Proles and animals are free.'" --1984

> I dont define good and i dont even try

Neither have I.

Its a difference of belief, and if i may, you sound a little bit depressed and nihilistic.

Maybe you need to realize your own agency in the story. You are a part of that machine too.

Id recommend jordan peterson and his take on hierarchy, its very eye opening.

> Its a difference of belief

It isn't a matter of belief. It's a matter of history and society. The proles don't have the capacity to do what you claim they can. Individually, a clever prole can rise up, but not collectively.

> and if i may, you sound a little bit depressed and nihilistic.

I'm neither. You might be projecting. Maybe a few more peterson videos that you will misunderstand/misinterpret will cure you?

> Maybe you need to realize your own agency in the story. You are a part of that machine too.

You seem to think I am part of the proles. I'm certainly not.

> Id recommend jordan peterson and his take on hierarchy, its very eye opening.

Nothing jordan peterson has stated is new. His take of hierarchy isn't his. It's been around a long time, even before peterson was born. But I agree that many could learn a thing or two from peterson. Unfortunately, it looks like some aren't able to understand him.

Anyways, if you provided any evidence to your claim, maybe this discussion would have been worth it, but I can see it's simply a misguided belief, so I'll leave you to it.

Well i certainly see your sarcasm and negative attitude to my argument, which is Ofcourse not pleasant - i agree with ending this, and i wish you nothing but good things, have a great day man

Or the groups or that did the wrong thing simply died, and what we are left with are the accidental randomly distributed beliefs that came about for no reason at all, but happened to be ones that weren't slightly more correlated with dying.

The example I like to use here is that it is often assumed that cannibalism taboos arise because people don't want to/don't like to eat other humans, or that doing so increases risk of disease. But 1. Meat is meat, especially once cooked 2. Have you _seen_ some of the stuff we eat? and 3. Instances of humans eating other humans still happen routinely in the modern world when people are hungry enough, though in some well documented instances they don't actively kill anyone for food.

I find a plausible alternative hypothesis to be that the innate (pre-cultural) disposition toward eating conspecifics is essentially random, and that cannibalism is actively selected against because human beings hate nothing more than the feeling of being prey. We kill everything and anything that is even remotely threatening to us. Groups _without_ the cannibalism taboo are thus much more likely to be wiped out as a result of virtually universal hatred and fear by any other group around.

"Why don't we eat the people we kill mommy?" -> "Because eating people is bad and you are more likely to get sick." vs "Because if we did everyone else would hunt us down and kill us and anyone who believed like us. Better to leave them be or bury them to show we are not predators."

There is probably an answer out there waiting to be found in a pile case studies and social science polls.

tl;dr It's the hunting not the eating.

Its more or less what i said in a different narrative. So the groups that did the right thing went on to survive, and the process to abstract what is “right” continued.

I think the need to abstract what is right is born out of the local phenomena of suffering .. just like the diety of medicine and healing Sekhmet or Hepius.

Death and disease would have still been universal, independent of which tribe survived. Im not arguing for the morality of disease here, but i am saying its a universal trait the system has, and we seem to try and minimize pain/suffering, much in the same way we need food.

I actually kind of agree with ur tldr, but only because i don’t see a real differences between hunting and eating. Its one process, and its discreteness is a local illusion - its actually happening everywhere at once, which we seem to be bad at imagining.

>Older cultures didnt need to check for anything, decisions probably evolved through intra generational symbolism and stories about ghosts and evil spirits.

Did anyone check if that is actually true is part of what I'm asking here. Or did/do the Tukanoans keep this process alive not out of intra generational symbolism, but because they make sure to tell the next generation it's poison.

Well dawkins wrote about memes, carl jung wrote about the collective unconscious, ofcourse darwin himself is seminal work ... behavioral and evolutionary psychology is an attempt to abstract these things. Could even look at military application and research of psychology during war.

I think the you are here today typing in a keyboard is proof enough it works - i also think today’s science is a part of that mechanism - i also don't really think our science today is any different than stories about evil spirits, at least in function and eventual “goal”, both don't have alot of power to influence the phenomena they are trying to explain.

Woah, this sentiment nails it. Please recommend reading.

dawkins wrote about memes, carl jung wrote about the collective unconscious, darwin himself is seminal work, behavioral and evolutionary psychology is an attempt to abstract these things. Could even look at military application and research of psychology during war.

We don't have to go very far to meet the collective ideal, its almost in every abstraction we make, also in art and seemingly non sciency things.

I copied a part of an answer i gave before for the readings, i hope you dont mind.

You didn't ask me but I have a similar outlook and would appreciate reading suggestions.

Jordan Peterson talks about the diversity of opinion being important because there is no single or constant fitness function. His lectures on personality get into this a bit. His 12 rules book does not.

I believe he's informed a lot by the work of Jonathan Haidt. His book The Righteous Mind is good.

It’s actually a lot of child development literature by w.d winicot and r.d laing, and the developmental psychology cult, also my own experience as a meditator, some nietzsche, existential theory (sartre, nausea). I surprisingly didnt read Haidth but ill check him out.

Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious influenced me alot too, and i find alot of sense / approval in Peterson's lectures.

I generally think the fact that we can generalize our behavior (childrens psych lit, behavioral psych lit.) is so astounding ... the fact we can agree on a minimum set of things we can agree we dont like happening to us (note: smart way of asserting universality of morals, you dont want to be murdered can be a good minimim example here) blows my mind.

In the end its what i choose to believe, i dont think im unique in thinking this way either.

I think even my thinking’s rightness is the result of that same intra generational process, im not unique, nor do i think i am in control (beyond the local control i exercise by trying not to die or be eaten).

> but I don't wash my hands because I observed my elders, or because some cultural figure told me it was merely the way of our people. Some just told at some point to wash my hands cause otherwise people get sick, and if I had had questions they'd have mentioned germs and stuff.

Not trying to be sarcastic or anything but want to point out that this basically is the same as observing one's elders. Our parents, teachers, doctors, etc, told us to wash our hands, and, when we asked why, explained that, they because of germs, it is the way of our people.

> I've certainly never seen a anyone die directly because of unwashed hands

I’ve sure seen someone get gastro from inadequate hands-washing, and after copping a bad batch myself that’s motivation enough.

If divination by bird augury is so wise, why don't we still use that to plan agricultural layouts?


But that sort of underscores the main argument against this stuff. Is it possible that many traditions, while once adaptive and beneficial, are no longer so? In other words, has the human situation departed so significantly from ancestral conditions that much of tradition is somewhere between irrelevant and harmful?

Of course not all tradition should be thrown out just for being old. But the tools of rationality have come a long way.

That’s the open question, isn’t it? We don’t know what we don’t know, so no matter how elaborate a rational defense of reform is, the reality may always be one step more complex than we thought.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t reform, but that reformers should be more humble than they are today, where many simply assume that the reasoned argument is the better one because of the superior nature of reason.

“The first important principle of science is to not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool” — Richard Feynman

The challenge is that rationality is often useless approach in complex systems. If I might be a little provocative, even “truth” and “facts” might be ill-defined concepts in complex systems (how will you establish controls? How big a sample must you run randomizes controlled trials on? What if that’s much bigger than feasible/possible due to exponential scaling? Not possible even in principle!)

A fundamental problem is the human tendency to try and optimize outcomes (using available rationality) — because we invariably overfit to temporary/local optima at the cost of the long term. To counter this failure mode requires sacrificing optimality (always defined by a proxy metric which holds only temporarily) for plurality/diversity. It is understood/expected that this deep principle has numerous manifestations in biology and culture (eg: sexual reproduction, enforced pseudo randomness, etc).

There is another “meta rational” idea that to understand things and do science, you have to first “survive”. Science only gives a reasonable guarantee of eventual correctness. Nobody guarantees that it is the best guide to live your (finite) life by. In Newton’s times, theology and alchemy were considered as promising (if not more) than physics (natural philosophy). George Washington’s doctors recommended blood-letting (SOTA medical technology of the day). What will humans two hundred years from now say about our current views?

The most important principle is to iteratively take insured risks and keep learning. If you hang around long enough doing that, knowledge will accumulate and compound.

Eg, see:

1. https://slatestarcodex.com/2019/06/04/book-review-the-secret...

2. https://www.edge.org/conversation/nassim_nicholas_taleb-unde...

My favorite example is some religions still forbidding pork even though our understanding of food safety has changed so dramatically.

You have to be careful with such an argumentation. It may very well be that forbidding pork is the result of century-long observations that people who eat much pork will on average die earlier than the general population. It may even be that the only kinds of meat eaten in the culture that originally invented this rule were fish, chicken and pork, which would mean that forbidding pork was equal to the modern damnation of "red meat".

Arguments like "pigs are unclean and live in the dirt" may have been used to explain this effect and to rationalize the rule, but just because the rationalization of a rule has been proven incorrect, its original intention is not automatically wrong.

It may also be that the rule was never the "shadow" of some empirico-rational observation at all.

Like the milk and the calf rule from Judaism, which was pretty blatantly an authoritarian attempt to enforce social division.

How so? Do you mean the Toraic rule about "seething a kid in its mother's milk" or the Rabbinic fences around it?


Maybe that’s just the way the Divine wanted it.

You’re rationalizing religion.

The prohibition of pork has nothing to do with disease. We’ve rationalized it by telling ourselves, since there is no God that could make such a silly request, that maybe they did it to cement food safety. Theres as much evidence that it’s all just a fortuitous coincidence.

If you think long and hard enough you can come up with a rationalization for anything in the Torah (or anything, really).

Instead religion is to be enjoyed like Love is. You don’t talk about pheromones and dopamine levels when you embrace you wife. You talk about mountains, and blue skies, and soaring views. If, on a whim, your wife were to ask you to pretend you’re a hare, would you not entertain her?

If you’re a Christian you could rationalize the pork thing by saying: “the purpose of the prohibition was to set up a teaching moment for Peter about Universalism and humility 1000 years later”.

But that’s silly. Instead, for a believer, it’s a insignificant request for an opportunity to make a physical demonstration of Love to the Devine.

The Sufis aren’t dancing because they’re free of tape worms.

This is getting back to metis and episteme. I liked how this concept was explored in the Uruk Machine series if you want to read more.

Metis is "local accumulated knowledge" and episteme is "abstract, generalized, theoretical knowledge".

Metis, tradition, is barely knowledge. It is more of a practice without any of the justification needed for knowledge. So if your community knows that it is best to plant seeds during a specific holiday, they might think a supernatural blessing is the reason. Knowing something for the wrong reason isn't knowledge.

Non-knowledge loses arguments to knowledge. When an agricultural scientist comes with theories and results it won't be difficult to say that the farming community actually doesn't know anything. That's fine. But we are too quick to throw out tradition vs knowledge because unless it is specifically measured against it, the practice of tradition may be superior to the practice of current knowledge. Their traditional planting date may be superior to all models. After all, they've successfully farmed here centuries or millennia.

The Sufis might be dancing because having community gatherings allows communities to survive. The dancing and rationalization is incidental but the actual gathering is a crucial matter of survival.

There are dozens of weird cleanliness rules in the Old Testament, it's pretty obvious to me that they were traditional learnings for avoiding disease.

You’re arguing with a straw man. I think he’s mostly saying that tradition sometimes contains valuable knowledge even if those practicing it can’t explain it. That’s not saying all traditions must be conserved at all.

What are these evolved tools of rationality that you're referring to?

>the tools of rationality

the article clearly explains that they mainly consist of making up rational and plausible sounding reasons, a disease especially virulent in modern western society

Most of the irrelevant and harmful stuff was stripped away long ago when it stopped being useful. Most tradition is useful, although the industrial revolution has been cause for reevaluating many, many traditions; even millennia old traditions like (some of the more egregious) gender roles.

There are many traditions that survived for thousands of years:

Genital mutilation circumcision, human sacrifice, using poisonous body paints, using lead in water pipes, asbestos, etc.

It often takes a great effort to stop a stupid and harmful tradition.

Fair enough. The system is statistical; I’m not claiming every harmful tradition is eliminated and tradition is optimal; only that the most harmful traditions are eliminated or minimized (e.g., human sacrifice is only practiced among very primitive civilizations).

the lack of bird divination could partly explain why modern agriculture is so devastating to the environment, specifically the soil. perhaps over time we will wipe ourselves out and only bird augury using farming communities will survive the test of time

"But the tools of rationality have come a long way."

highly debatable

Nobody argues that "all tradition is wrong." That would be silly. Obviously the processes of traditional and cultural evolution are going to produce many things that work.

Those who argue the "traditionalist" side are typically arguing much more than that. They're arguing that tradition should count alone as a form of evidence or proof.

There's a funny thing about that. I never see these types of arguments made for traditions that are neutral and innocuous, like the curious custom of decorating trees indoors in winter, or those that are obviously valid and beneficial. I only see it trotted out in support of traditions that are hard to defend without tortured arguments and special pleading.

From what I've seen over the past 5-10 years the latter are generally prejudices and caste systems under attack in liberal democracies.

Personally I take the position that if you're going to argue that some category of human being is less valuable or should have less rights than everyone else you'd better have a damn strong argument that goes way beyond "it's traditional."

I'm not necessarily insinuating anything about the author, but even if the author didn't intend to construct a rationale for a caste system that's usually where this goes. The reason is as I said above: only otherwise indefensible traditions require special pleading, so any such special pleading furnished tends to gravitate toward its market niche.

>I never see these types of arguments made for traditions that are neutral and innocuous, like the curious custom of decorating trees indoors in winter, or those that are obviously valid and beneficial.

I expect this has more to do with the fact that such things don't often need to be defended because they are either neutral and innocuous or obviously valid and beneficial.

Surely you've heard people defend 'merry christmas' vs 'happy holidays' with this reasoning, and unless I'm vastly underestimating the offense felt by being told to be happy for the wrong cultural celebration, that is not a serious issue of prejudice. The argument is made because the thing is threatened, not because the thing is bad.

Outside political talk radio I haven't heard people claim "Merry Christmas" is under serious threat. I live in a pretty liberal and very multicultural place and heard and saw plenty of "Merry Christmas" this season. Even non-Christians seem to call the ubiquitous decorated pine a "Christmas tree." Nobody seems offended. (You can always find someone who is terribly offended about anything, but it's definitely not a broadly held sentiment.)

Most retailers and the media opt for "Happy Holidays" for simple marketing reasons: their audience is broad and they don't want to seem uninviting to Jews, Muslims, atheists, etc. A mall isn't going to print "(Merry|Happy|Blessed) (Christmas|Hanukkah|Ramadan|Solstice|...)"

I do sometimes see tradition's value highlighted to attempt to rescue fading traditions from being forgotten or eclipsed by modern noise and consumerism. These traditions might not be harmful in any way and there's nothing wrong with trying to preserve them. When this is done, it tends to face little to no opposition. No extraordinary arguments are needed, just drawing attention to the tradition and its moral, historic, community, or aesthetic value.

My point was to highlight something I've personally observed, especially in these (HN and its orbits) circles: when more ideological traditionalist arguments surface they inevitably end up leading in certain directions. I've seen this movie before.

This issue should be talked about more, because I believe it lies at the foundation of so many issues; not only do we face this daily in tech, but daily in politics with respect to 'progress'.

Though 'tradition' can often be wrong, we definitely do not consider the value of 'what is' because often there are no advocates for it.

Change has tons of creative, intellectual advocation. We all want to think, create, adapt, and it's always this are that is the most creatively dynamic.

Advocates for consistency often don't have the same degree of dynamism, rather, the arguments are often indirect i.e. 'the rules are there for a reason' instead of advocating the reasoning rules themselves.

This is one of the favorites subjects of Nassim Taleb.

> Survival comes first, truth, understanding, and science later

> Judging people on their beliefs is not scientific. There is no such thing as “rationality” of a belief, there is rationality of action. The rationality of an action can only be judged by evolutionary considerations.


Until it isn't... and there are many, many cases of that too.

That being said, the funniest example aligning with the article to me personally, is how nearly all atheists "believe" in natural selection, but almost no atheists have more than 2-3 children. In fact, most seem to have zero or one. And many Conservative Christians don't "believe" in evolution, but yet trend towards having many more children / larger families.

It's just such a clear example of how a likely incorrect belief (AKA, "God wants me to have as many children as possible") can still result in a massive evolutionary advantage.

To take this further... is this belief incorrect? If you articulate it in a form that invokes literal theism, then I suppose that makes it a question of whether literal theism is correct, which obviously excludes atheists.

But you could articulate it as "children are almost always a blessing" vs "children are a burden, especially after a certain number." Either of these are debatable (and truth for most people is probably a balance of the two propositions), but in this formulation, theism could be orthogonal, or it could take on an auxiliary role in supporting one over the other. And most of all, the question of whether theism is literal or whether it's a symbolic distillation of human observations about values and meaning gets factored out of practical considerations.

I really enjoy instances where a tradition/belief/superstition results in a beneficial outcome for scientifically-verifiable reasons - especially when they're a shortcut or heuristic for that reasoning.

My go-to example - I have heard it said (I'm no expert!) that Feng Shui teaches that one should arrange a room such that a dragon could flow through it comfortably. Even if a dragon never materializes in my room, visualizing that occurrence helps to sub-conciously prompt for clear walkways, sightlines, and other aesthetically pleasing properties.

> nearly all atheists "believe" in natural selection, but almost no atheists have more than 2-3 children

To go back to Chesterton by more or less paraphrasing what he says about the "German pessimist mouse" in Orthodoxy, you can't get a moral out of nature that you don't bring to nature in the first place. So that decision can be quite consistent if these atheists don't feel that they have some kind of "duty to the race" or something that should come well before their own well-being or that of their loved ones. (In reality the situation is more complicated, but that's by the by.)

Ideologies aren't genetic traits though. Ever-increasing numbers of atheists in America signal that those Conservative Christians aren't all giving birth to Conservative Christians.

They aren't literally encoded by genes, but they do follow evolutionary patterns. That's what a meme is. Just going the by the birth numbers, the tide will likely turn: conservative Christians have the adaptive "mutation" of believing they should make lots of babies. It's competing with a different mutation called "science" or whatever, but some proportion of those conservative christian memes are going to be passed to children, and it seems that those children will have more babies, and so on. Over time, those numbers overwhelm.

Your prediction is in die contradiction of the trend of the past 50 years, we are on track to have fully atheistic societies in the west withing decades. There is no empirical evidence that your rationalisation is correct.

I mean, memetic evolution is faster than genetic evolution because generations take longer and are most constrained. So the genetic trend is always lagging. I expect the trade off between these things to be cyclical and that we're in the part of the cycle where the tide is turning in favor of the baby-makers.

The correlation with wealth is much more consistent. Human beings have less children as they and their societies become wealthier (up to a certain point).

In any case to make this argument work one must also argue that increased fertility is always good for fitness. If we all had children like we did in the 1800s today we probably would face some kind of Malthusian catastrophe fairly soon, an event that could easily lead to the deaths of far more people than the current more restricted population and the extinction of far more genetic lineages. It may be extremely adaptive to reduce population growth during times of abundance so as to escape the Malthusian treadmill and instead leverage that abundance for longer term investments in the future.

If we're indulging in evolutionary psychology just so stories it seems reasonable to hypothesize that human beings might have some kind of built in population regulation valve. When abundance is high we have less children and invest more in them and when abundance is low we have more to try to brute force our genes into the future. All evolutionary lineages have suffered multiple bottleneck events, so it seems logical to at least consider that such mechanisms may have evolved to cushion and dampen out these fluctuations.

But of course that may not be true. Correlation does not equal causation. The difference between pop evolutionary psychologizing and actual evolutionary biology is that the latter is built on physical evidence in the form of the fossil record and genomics. The former can only look at the present and concoct stories that might perhaps explain it if true.

Children and wealth form a U-curve in the USA. Poor people: lots. Rich people: lots. Middle class: few to none.

The middle class is in the unique position of craving upward mobility while being given the majority of the tax pressure and increasingly narrow means of differentiating a child among other children in a global market for an educated class.

They also form the bulwark of conspicuous consumption dollars even if tastes have become more refined over time to not plainly state it as such.

These are all factors which may correlate overall with societal wealth but are nonetheless not necessary to it, nor may it be necessary to abide to these incentives.

I can see a conservative middle class producing many children but mitigating these expenses through greater social cohesion – which could mean more connected networks to take advantage of for labor placement rather than costly degrees to signal to HR departments that can't afford to put faces to names; or maybe having more people to rely on if you need to alleviate the time-pressures of raising a child – as well a different sense of what makes life worth living beyond one's toys or "experiences" which are passive engagements with scenery or momentary exhilarations.

I can't find any data backing up this U curve. Fertility declines with household income and levels off about about $100k, at least in the USA. It's hard to find data on the very rich but I'm not aware of people like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, or Jeff Bezos having abnormally large numbers of children. Elon Musk has four AFAIK but even that seems like an outlier on the high end.

The last point is possible but speculative. Where I live conservatives tend to be solidly in the suburbanite camp. They want their own house, their own yard, their own family, etc. and would never opt into some kind of commune even with very like-minded people. I've seen people living as you describe in more granola circles. The best example of what you describe in more religious-conservative circles is the classical Israeli Kibbutz. Look it up. It's pretty interesting. They've changed a bit though in modern times and apparently are less egalitarian and commune-like and more like Zaibatsus.

I'm uncertain if that rationale is the driving force behind their procreation so much as the correlation with religiosity and low levels of education, which is in turn correlated with greater fertility.

I recommend you reread the post you replied to as it seems you agree without being aware of it.

No, the comment by asdf21 says religiosity results in fertility (causation), while the comment by AQuantized says it's just correlation.

Please don't start comments with "I recommend you reread the post you replied to". Be more specific, e.g. "It seems your comment and the one you're replying to are both saying X".

Or maybe atheists want to concentrate more resources on the upbringing of the child so that they have a competitive advantage.

Then also consider that in 3,000 years I'll probably be ancestor to all (this holds true for others, I am by no means special). Don't really need to go through the hassle of rearing 6 more kids to secure my genetic future.

> Or maybe atheists want to concentrate more resources on the upbringing of the child so that they have a competitive advantage.

If you have less than 3 children, investing more resources in each child doesn't matter. 2 children is break even from the standpoint of procreation. So purposefully limiting yourself to that many or fewer children is a losing procreation strategy.

Historical observations of the logarithmic expansion of one's descendant-set are based off historical procreation rates. If your ideology is to have one child, and all your descendants adopt that ideology too, then you won't experience the same rate of proliferation.

True, quality over quantity, investing more in few is a valid evolutionary advantage, both short and long. OP should've used the term "evolutionarily advantageous on the short term in some conditions" instead of "massive evolutionary advantage" if correctness is valued.

One problem of radical ideas is selection bias. The radical ideas that were true and useful are widely known. However, there are a lot of radical ideas that did not work out.

One example, I see is in psychology. Pretty much every time I see an article published that goes against "conventional wisdom", I find that some time later that there is an issue with statistics or sample or the article is otherwise not reproducible.

Basically, humans are generally smart and over time figure out what works.

The same problem exists from the other end. How many traditional ideas are useful and true vs. how many have been clearly shown to be useless or destructive nonsense? If you need examples of the latter the most fruitful area to search is probably traditional medicine. Pre-enlightenment medicine provides an abundance of things that don't work or are downright harmful.

Producing such tallies would be extremely difficult. It's hard to even classify complex ideas as traditional or radical/rational.

Is communism traditional or radical? At first glance it's quite novel but it's full of ideas and sentiments that closely resemble those found in many religions and more tribal or family oriented cultures. The idea of collective ownership wouldn't be that foreign to a nomadic culture, and those are among the most traditional and oldest societies on Earth. One could argue it's a mere modern repackaging of a lot of extremely old ideas.

If you assume humans have not evolved significantly over the past 20,000 years, you have to wonder what all the geniuses were doing.

Perhaps genius is a function of childhood nutrition and medicine, but if a genius is 1 in 1000, then every village must have had one at some point.

What did people just as intelligent as us but without knowledge do for their entire lives? They build on tradition.

>If you assume humans have not evolved significantly over the past 20,000 years, you have to wonder what all the geniuses were doing.

They were mostly preoccupied trying to stay alive. Also, any physical defect could be a death sentence. Have poor vision, you get eaten by a lion that you didn’t see. Unable to keep up with the tribe, you get left behind.

That's true, but it only redeuces the probability some. There existed well-fed healthy populations at many points in history and geography.

Even if the probability is much lower, there is estimated to be over 100 billions humans that have lived.

I think we intuitively underestimate ancient peoples' individual abilities because we have so much knowledge and wisdom that's been built up over millennia easily available to us. But someone had to figure out how to farm using primitive tools and develop the tradition for the community.

What was medieval Von Neumann doing?

In southern India, the "pongal" harvest festival (14/15/16 of Jan) has a component called "bhogi" that had traditionally involved burning old stuff .. which some have implied had the metaphorical role of pointing to dropping old baggage to welcome a new year.

Ironically, this is itself old baggage today (in Chennai) where the air quality just today is horrible due to the practice of "bhogi" burning.

I love the idea of divination as a random number generator. That’s something that’s going to stick with me for a long time.

It's something that astounded me as cultural technology.

I think the problem with this perspective and the examples picked is that tradition is particularly beneficial when the environment is largely stable. Two of the examples being given are explorers in the desert or ice who die when indigenous people's survive, or the processing of poisonous fruit.

The long term cultural adaptation really does provide benefits for these problems because they never change, so you have a long time to work and improve on them. The desert is more or less the same as is the ice, as is the fruit.

But it's very easy to come up with counter-examples. The so-called cargo-cult was a group of indigenous people conflating modern planes with deities because they were still guided by their religious worldview. The middle-east faced a very rude awakening when confronted with the military and technological superiority of modern European states.

In a static environment, tradition can produce long term benefits, but in a dynamic, novel environment tradition imposes costs by slowing down the speed at which reforms can be executed.

Arguably the world is becoming more and more dynamic and complex with large scale problems that are entirely novel propping up every other decade. It's hard to think of the slowness of tradition as a virtue in this case.

Scott Alexander reviewed the same book a year later:



> Historically, Reason has been the villain of the human narrative, a corrosive force that tempts people away from adaptive behavior towards choices that “sounded good at the time”.

Reason and the desire to question things is part of cultural evolution as well, perhaps adapted for an age when things change incredibly quickly.

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