When independent thought flourishes

By Razib Khan | March 18, 2012 10:09 pm

One of the things I instinctively hated about my “ancestral culture,” that of Bangladesh, is that there wasn’t that great of an emphasis on individual independent thought. Why, for example, was it important never to drink water while you were eating, as opposed to after you were done? The response was simple: that’s the rule. Even if there was a functional rationale, there wasn’t even any pretense at offering a reasoned explanation for why a custom was a custom. It’s just how it was.

But there are reasons for this mindless following of rules passed down from generations past. In behavior ecology it is understood that organisms in extremely static environments and extremely variant environments don’t gain any benefit from determining their own optimal strategy independently, as opposed to simply following what’s been done before or is done by con-specifics. The reason is that if the environment does not change, you are reinventing the wheel. If the environment changes constantly, then you will always be a step behind in terms of adapting to the last crisis, and you’ll be expending time and energy learning. Better to just continue with mindless but cheap sub-optimal strategies, rather than mindful but expensive sub-optimal strategies.

Why am I bringing this up? A few anthropologists (e.g., Robert Boyd, Peter Richerson, Joe Henrich, etc.) have pointed out that the same logic may apply to humans. Independent thought is expensive, and is only optimal in particular environments. If nothing ever changes then it is futile and wasteful. If things change far too fast for an individual alone to “track” their environment then it is also futile and wasteful. This insight may explain the prevalence of collectivist conservatism and reaction at particular points in history. When change never occurs then following tried & tested habits pays. When change is too fast there isn’t any benefit for independent thinking, and people fall back on cheap collective strategies which allow them to gain at least some purchase is a protean world. The liberal individualist world then may be the world of the golden mean in between. Change, but not too much.


Comments (31)

  1. By extension, it follows that a population will consist of late adopters and early adopters, or novelty avoiders and novelty seekers, in some distribution, with (if the population is well adapted to its social ecology) a mode roughly at optimality. When things change independently of the social construct, though (invasions, new technologies or economics) the mode will either be too radical or too conservative for optimality. Social upheaval can result until a new ESS is found, or until the social structures fracture entirely.

    A lot like adaptive evolution, really…

  2. Mephane

    Ironically people thinking independent ly are required the most in some of those two extreme scenarios: stagnant inchanging societies (e.g. dictatorships) in dire need for major overhaul, and societies that might be moving into an undesirable direction fast.

    The graph indeed displays the benefit for the independently-thinking individual. However for the society as a whole, it could very well be the other way round.

  3. Niklas

    @John S. Wilkins

    If we apply some other perspectives. What will happen with the distribution of such characteristics and abilities in a population, if a society experiance a long period of relative stability?

    And on a longer timescale, could it be conceivable that an increasing human population density over the last 70 000 years, have acted as feedback, raising the overall baseline level and frequency of change stress, and that this in turn has been a driving force behind a selection preassure favoring adopter/innovator type characteristics in the gene pool?

    And also the possible distribution and impact of genetic and cultural factors here…

    Interesting to ponder on! Good start to the week 🙂

  4. Siod Beorn

    Reminded me of the following quote from GK Chesterson:

    “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.”

    This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.”

  5. Sandgroper

    We had the same water rule when I was a kid. How come the same? When I requested an explanation, I was told it would dilute my stomach acid and I wouldn’t be able to digest my food. There was no rule about drinking milk with meals, so I drank that instead and turned into a fat kid.

    We had another rule – you should never drink iced water, it would give you stomach cramps. Water always had to be at room temperature. This was in a climate where the summer diurnal maximum temperature could easily be upwards of 40 degrees Celsius. There was no rule about drinking cold milk, so I drank that instead, and got fatter.

    I used to watch TV programs that showed Americans having glasses of iced water with their meals. I felt certain something dreadful would happen to them. It didn’t.

    I must admit I now see a lot of things as senseless monstrosities and want to change them.

  6. April Brown

    That’s definitely an interesting point – thinking back to living in Uzbekistan from 2003 – 2005 (the country still reelling and transforming from being abandoned by the Soviets, as the older generation tended to frame it), I saw the clash between reliance on tradition and individual thinkers play out again and again. Mostly, everybody defaulted to traditional wisdom, and that’s working out about as well as you might expect. Individual thinkers suffered a lot of shame and ridicule and hostility, and tended to move to Kazahkstan, which is doing far, far better than its southern neighbor now.

  7. Ray Higgins

    In humans how would this interact with our perception and desire for changing and or lack of change. It seems to me that a beleif based around the denial of change or refusal of change is exactly what is happening in america’s religious consevetives. In that they are blindly latchng on to any they see as representing some “unchanging” peice of how they think the world should be.

  8. Justin Giancola

    Sandgroper, is there an issue today with Aboriginals trending toward overweight like there is in the US sphere with African and Pacific Islander decent people?

  9. Sandgroper

    #8 Justin – Yes, very much so. In Perth I occasionally still see people from the north of Western Australia who are down there visiting, pure Aboriginal guys who live on a more traditional diet, stockmen (cowboys) who work hard physically or school kids who are very active in sports, and they are magnificent, slender, fit-looking people. The town people are all obese, with all of the attendant problems.

    In South Australia, some Aboriginal people have started a movement to try to lead their people back towards a more traditional hunter-gatherer diet – they clearly recognise what the problem is.

    There is a noticeable contrast with Torres Strait Islanders, who had agriculture, and who appear to have less of a problem with modern diet.

    The Aboriginal people don’t achieve the levels of massive size that some Polynesians get to, though.

  10. Justin Giancola

    Okay, here’s a question! Do the ladies get ..booties?? To which, they can colloquially “drop”, much like something of unexpected heat? Need I not elaborate. 😀

  11. I am pleased to see that you are reading Boyd, Richerson and Henrich. At some stage you should probably make some posts about their core thesis – that human culture obeys Darwinian rules and coevolves with human genes. This does, after all, represent one of the biggest transitions for evolutionary theory ever.

  12. #11, i’ve been talking about them for years.

  13. Sandgroper
  14. Violet

    One rule that absolutely baffles me is “Pink for girls and blue for boys”.

    #5 @ Sandgroper, we had absolutely no drinking of any liquid rule at the table. Supposedly my grand mother died of choking when she drank some water during her lunch. Enough to stop us from questioning any further as kids. I think it might be to stop us from swallowing lunch with water/liquid instead of chewing it enough.

    I know the one about cold water too. I thought it has something to do with preventing dehydration since one feels their thirst quenched sooner with a cold drink than with a warm drink. I also heard something vaguely about maintaining core body temperature.

  15. pconroy

    Growing up in Ireland, my mother would encourage us to not drink during meals, in order than we didn’t loose out appetite.
    I never drank any liquids with added ice growing up, and here in the US, always ask for drinks without ice.

    A friend who is Chinese-Phillipino says that her mother always insisted that they never drink cold beverages. She warned her on coming to the US, not to drink cold beer or soda, as, “It’s not good for a Chinese stomach”

  16. omar

    #4: I agree with you that one should pause to consider what role practice X or Y may be playing in society before marching forward to change it, but your analogy seems to favor the role of conscious far-sighted seers. That does not seem to be how human society works (for the most part).
    Were the rules were put up by intelligent men (or women) individually grasping their significance and purpose and proposing rules whose effect they fully or mostly understood in advance? I dont think so. It seems more likely that most rules evolved over time. Rules that have stuck around may be there for a good reason (though trivial ones may even survive for no reason beyond teaching that there are rules and daddy knows best) but they are likely to be the product of similar blind social engineering in the past. Prophet A and his followers B, C and D came up with them for all sorts of reasons (inspired guess, sincere attempt to solve problem, misunderstood dream, random error, whatever) and the ones that fit well with the rest of the simultaneously evolving society (and its slower evolving biological substrate) stuck around….

  17. Yes, I know you have been aware of Boyd and Richerson for quite a while. These seem like exciting times for the area, and I’m a little surprised that you haven’t yet been drawn in more.

  18. Justin Giancola

    All joking aside, I was curious because I have noticed with some of the Onge and negrito people I’ve seen, a tendency toward storing fat in the buttock region to quite an isolated and perky effect. This is an often remarked subject here in the US regarding more tropical/subtropical ethnicities – in particular Africans – having better/weirder, depending on taste, butts. I was curious if the effects of more admixture with the Denisova would change the fat storage profile for these similarly “tropical” in form people.

  19. Sandgroper

    #18 Jason – I think you are referring to steatopygia, particularly observable in the Khoisan, some Pygmies, and Onge people.

    No, Australian Aborigines, Torres Strait Islanders, Papuans and other Melanesian island populations don’t have it. In fact, AA women have noticeably slim buttocks (not that I’ve looked) and seem to accumulate fat around the waist rather than further south, i.e. when they get fat they turn apple shaped, not pear shaped. Which is not good news for them health-wise.

    I think Denisovan admixture is too small to affect physical appearance in that way, i.e. people who think they look Neanderthal because they have 3.0% admixture are kidding themselves.

    #14 Violet – People like my daughter and Paul Conroy’s daughters are rapidly destroying the pink/blue rule by insurrection. By the time Zeeb’s daughter joins the mutineers, success will be assured.

  20. pconroy

    @Sandgroper 19

  21. Justin Giancola

    This is the first time I’ve been called Jason online! 😀 People always swap Jason for Justin in conversation – especially old folks! 😉

    I am aware of steatopygia, how much I buy into it as a real syndrome vs. part of a cline of fat storage dispersal…like thinking latin american/ african amer. stereotypes, kim kardashian etc.

    I would contend we often see people professing Papuan, Aust. people and such, accrue their unique facial traits and possibly robustness because of their admixture, so if aligned with that I don’t see why it could not influence fat dist. profiles.

  22. Justin Giancola

    This is the first time I’ve been called Jason online! 😀 People always swap Jason for Justin in conversation – especially old folks! 😉

    I am aware of steatopygia, how much I buy into it as a real syndrome vs. part of a cline of fat storage dispersal…like thinking latin american/ african amer. stereotypes, kim kardashian etc.

    I would contend we often see people professing Papuan, Aust. people and such, accrue their unique facial traits and possibly robustness because of their admixture, so if aligned with that I don’t see why it could not influence fat dist. profiles.

  23. Sandgroper

    Sorry Jason, I’ve just done you a huge injustice.

    Justin, I think I see what you’re driving at, but I think you would be on a loser trying to infer something from physical measurements in this case.

  24. Justin Giancola

    by the time I’m done with physical anthropology people will be saying Carleton Whoon??? ;p

  25. Violet

    #19 Sandgroper, I am doing my part by dressing up my boy in pink :). Although I think I will lose this control once he begins regular school.

  26. Sandgroper

    #25 – Oh Violet, I hope so! 🙂

  27. Justin Giancola

    pink shirts look good on me. I ain’t neva scared.

    wearing one now in fact!

  28. Sandgroper

    I went off pink business shirts; much prefer pale blue to any other colour. It’s the best colour for TV – white flares. I don’t mind a pink polo for casual or something like that, but my daughter said if I ever wear a pink shirt she will disown me. So that’s it, that’s a penalty that is just too harsh for me to bear.

  29. Justin Giancola

    Are you saying you are on TV??

  30. Sandgroper

    Have been from time to time. It’s highly overrated, in my opinion. But if you ever have to be on TV, white shirts are bad, the lighting causes them to flare on the cameras, and pink shirts look bad. Pale blue shirts come over the best.

  31. imnobody

    #4 nailed it.

    A beautiful expression of this problem is found in Tom Wolfe’s essay “The Great Relearning” from his book “Hooking up”. For me it’s the best essay by Wolfe but, unfortunately, it is not online.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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