Radimentary

"Everything can be made radically elementary." ~Steven Rudich

Category: Essays and Short Stories

Progress and Divinity

From Yudkowsky on scientific progress:

In Orthodox Judaism there is a saying:  “The previous generation is to the next one as angels are to men; the next generation is to the previous one as donkeys are to men.”  This follows from the Orthodox Jewish belief that all Judaic law was given to Moses by God at Mount Sinai.  After all, it’s not as if you could do an experiment to gain new halachic knowledge; the only way you can know is if someone tells you (who heard it from someone else, who heard it from God).  Since there is no new source of information, it can only be degraded in transmission from generation to generation.

Thus, modern rabbis are not allowed to overrule ancient rabbis.  Crawly things are ordinarily unkosher, but it is permissible to eat a worm found in an apple—the ancient rabbis believed the worm was spontaneously generated inside the apple, and therefore was part of the apple.  A modern rabbi cannot say, “Yeah, well, the ancient rabbis knew diddly-squat about biology.  Overruled!”  A modern rabbi cannot possibly know a halachic principle the ancient rabbis did not, because how could the ancient rabbis have passed down the answer from Mount Sinai to him?  Knowledge derives from authority, and therefore is only ever lost, not gained, as time passes.

When I was first exposed to the angels-and-donkeys proverb in (religious) elementary school, I was not old enough to be a full-blown atheist, but I still thought to myself:  “Torah loses knowledge in every generation.  Science gains knowledge with every generation.  No matter where they started out, sooner or later science must surpass Torah.”

Divinity

Here are two models of divinity, which I will call – at great personal risk – the conservative model and the progressive model.

The conservative model is the one everyone knows. Divinity is that of the unreachable supreme being who instantiated everything. Past the moment of creation, everything is decay – after all, how can creation measure up to creator? This is the “Second Law of Thermodynamics” model of divinity: God is the entropy-less state at the beginning of time. This is also, as far as I know, the model used by all religions that ever existed.

The progressive model is much more uncommon. Divinity is the paradox of creating something greater than yourself. What glory can there be in a defective painting for a perfect artist? This is the “Hikaru no Go” model of divinity – each generation moving closer towards the Divine Move, the Hand of God. This is the Stephen Hawking model of divinity – each generation striving closer to a perfect understanding of the universe, closer to the Mind of God.

I pose three questions about these two models of divinity.

  1. Why are all human religions conservative?
  2. Could we design a viable progressive religion?
  3. Do these models map onto personality and/or political affiliation?

Conservatism

Chesterton’s Fence

“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.”

  • Chesterton 1929 book The Thing

Let’s be clear: what do conservatives want to conserve? The wisdom of the ages embedded in the kludge that is our system of government. It is a mistake to go into the study of government, see a mess of unfairness and inefficiency, and immediately try to reform it without giving it a chance. Let me be clear: that is not to say that government always does things for good reasons. That’s pretty much opposite of what Libertarians believe. It simply means that almost always there are reasons for fences, and you should only tear it down if you figure out why it was built in the first place. Sometimes people build fences, or walls, for bad reasons.

Collective Action vs. Tyranny

Presumably you’re here because you are afraid of the current regime becoming tyrannical. If so, congratulations, you are a libertarian! At least as much as I am anyway. Libertarianism, at least the brand that I practice, is about constant vigilance: whenever the government does anything, it takes a little more power and we are that much closer to the George III who we fought a war to escape. Republicans like to say that America was founded on Christian principles – there is a grain of truth but it’s mostly nonsense. But what is clear is that America was founded on Libertarian principles – the government was set up to fight tyranny. Division of powers, checks and balances, what this means basically is that the Constitution sets up a government which is designed to be constantly in conflict with itself, so that no part can be too powerful.

Let’s start from first principles: if tyranny is so scary, why do we have government? The main reason we want government (which is not the same as how it arose) is to solve problems of collective action. There is a common good or value that everyone wants to protect, but no individual will step up because the cost to themselves is not worth the negligible impact they can have on the whole. Protecting the environment, defending the less fortunate, maintaining peace and liberty. These are absolutely necessary things that we need someone with big guns to step in and handle.

 

So government solves the problem of collective action: but it replaces it with the problem of tyranny. We can think of constructing the perfect government as solving a simple optimization problem. The more authoritarian you go, the higher the danger of tyranny and the lower that of collective action. The more libertarian you go, the higher the danger of collective action failures and the lower that of tyranny. Of course, there are many other orthogonal dimensions to government, but I would argue this is the most important.

Textualism

Gorsuch is a textualist, Scalia was a textualist, I will argue that textualism is the optimal judicial philosophy. We have a body of laws, and above it a Constitution. However, there is always ambiguity and inconsistency among such a complicated and old system – the function of the Supreme Court is  to reduce this ambiguity and inconsistency. The function of the Court is not to administer justice, except insofar as the Constitution is just.

Consistency and clarity are of utmost importance because we need to be able to figure out what is legal or not. Ideally, an interest in justice demands that we have a body of laws from which any individual can figure out exactly where they stand if they make any given action. This should be true even if the laws only tangentially apply to the situation at hand: this is why there needs to be a canonical interpretation to view every statute. Obviously this is a pipe dream but approaching this value is what the Court is for.

Here comes my argument for textualism or originalism: the only canonical interpretation of a piece of writing is the intent of the author. You read a statute, your friend in Florida reads a statute, how can you agree on what it means without communicating, except by each researching what the author would have meant? This is the only way of interpreting law where there is a concrete answer and the only problem is providing an algorithm for determining that answer. Any other interpretation requires an injection of one’s own values into the picture.

Say you’re like me and you have very little respect for the Constitution (it has after all been patched 17 times after release). Why would we want the Supreme Court to enforce unjust laws consistently instead of making their own decisions based on a better moral compass?


I have already mentioned why consistency is a useful value. Another reason, and probably the more relevant one for this class, is to defend against tyranny: whoever gives can take away. When the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade that became the lawful origin of the right to abortion. When the Supreme Court decided Obergefell v. Hodge that became the lawful origin of the right to marry. Liberals were really happy about this right up until the moment Donald Trump was elected.

We need the Supreme Court to exercise restraint and not make definitive interpretations outside the scope of the laws. If abortion had been fought through state-by-state and/or by Constitutional Amendment, it would have been a much harder fight but we wouldn’t be as worried about Ginsburg kicking the bucket.

Let’s be clear: we ended slavery by Constitutional Amendment. Nobody is afraid Trump will bring back slavery. We gave women the right to vote by Constitutional Amendment. Nobody is afraid Trump will take away women’s suffrage. The Supreme Court decided that abortion and gay marriage are legal, and as soon as a contrarian president came in we got in trouble.

Small Countries, Good Expanders

Small Countries

Political scientists have known for a very long time a simple scaling law: smaller nations are better run. To my knowledge, Montesquieu was the first to publicize this matter:

It is natural for a republic to have only a small territory; otherwise it cannot long subsist. In an extensive republic there are men of large fortunes, and consequently of less moderation; there are trusts too considerable to be placed in any single subject; he has interests of his own; he soon begins to think that he may be happy and glorious, by oppressing his fellow-citizens; and that he may raise himself to grandeur on the ruins of his country.

In an extensive republic the public good is sacrificed to a thousand private views; it is subordinate to exceptions, and depends on accidents. In a small one, the interest of the public is more obvious, better understood, and more within the reach of every citizen; abuses have less extent, and, of course, are less protected.

The long duration of the republic of Sparta was owing to her having continued in the same extent of territory after all her wars. The sole aim of Sparta was liberty; and the sole advantage of her liberty, glory.

One can see positive evidence for this law today, most of the highest functioning – at least in the sense of bureaucratic efficiency – are barely visible on the map: here is an arbitrary list I found: Switzerland, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Ireland, Netherlands, Austria, New Zealand, Finland, Germany, Luxembourg, Canada. The next set of highest: Belgium, Australia, Czech Republic, Singapore, United Kingdom, Slovenia, France, Spain, Japan, Slovakia, Taiwan, Italy, Mauritius, Portugal, Uruguay, Lithuania, South Korea, Latvia, Costa Rica, Romania.

There are a handful of exceptions, but is truly remarkable how many tiny countries there are on this list. I would mention that many of the dysfunctional countries at the bottom of the list are also tiny, but muh narrative…

In any case, it is reasonable to speculate that most of the highest performing nations are tiny, even if the converse is false.

Scaling Laws

I want to suggest that all scaling laws are the same: surface area grows quadratically, but volume grows cubically. In nature, this means that cells cannot be bigger than a certain size, that a elephant-sized ant would need elephant-sized legs to stand up, that there is a natural range of sizes where different types of biological organization exist, and pushing past these size constraints need real feats of ingenuity.

Whereas a single-celled organism can simply wait to absorb oxygen from its membrane, the human body has an entire organ system dedicated to expending energy to transport oxygen throughout its interior, essentially artificially increasing the “surface area” of the human body. A body with a thousand times the mass has only a hundred times the surface area naturally.

What kind of scaling law controls political efficiency? Montesquieu suggests that republics too large will altogether fail due to splintering, factionalism, and self-interest. History has already borne witness to the falsehood of this original idea, but it contains at least a grain of truth.

Good Expanders

I think bureaucratic efficiency is directly tied to the connectivity of the social network. In some sense, the relevant scaling law is: smaller countries are better connected. What does this mean? Is it just a corollary of the one true scaling law I described already?

You might define connectivity as average degree – then I think the scaling law must be false. People generally have some bounded number of friends and acquaintances, the number and strength of which doesn’t vary depending on the size of the nation they live in. There is no nation so small that this constrains significantly the size of a person’s contact list.

The sophisticated notion of connectivity is expansion, which is closely related to the notion of conductance. A graph is a good expander if every subset has a lot of neighbors outside itself – that is, there are no large, relatively isolated subcultures. Formally, we might define the conductance of a set of vertices as the ratio of edges leaving the set to edges staying inside the set. The conductance of the graph then is the worst conductance of all its subsets (other than the very big ones). A good expander is a graph with high conductance, so that every subset has lots of edges leaving it.

Why is this a useful notion of connectivity and how might it relate to politics or efficiency? The basic and important property of expanders is that they act like sparse random graphs – in particular, random walks on expanders converge rapidly to uniform. One corollary: information (or any other resource we’re trying to spread: values, amenities, culture) spreads quickly and uniformly across an expander. In contrast, with bad expanders information will get stuck in “bottlenecks” of low conductance for long periods of time.

Then I propose that the law of scaling for conductance is: conductance grows like perimeter/area, which will generally depend inversely on the size of the nation grows.

Double the area of a nation. The number of people multiplies roughly by four, and so too the number of edges in the social network multiplies by four. However, the length of the border of the nation only doubles, so in net the larger nation is relatively better isolated from its neighbors due to geography. The same argument applies to any geographically contiguous region inside the nation – as these get larger, they also get paradoxically more isolated from the other. As long as social networks are bounded degree and tied to geography in a serious way, this is a simple artifact of our original scaling law one dimension down: perimeter grows linearly and area grows quadratically. It is no wonder that bigger nations are more divided.

 

Whom

The boy on the right is strong but cruel. The boy on the left is weak but kind. Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right is cruel but strong. The boy on the left is kind but weak. Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right knows much but always lies. The boy on the left knows little but always tells the truth. Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right loves you, but you hate him. The boy on the left hates you, but you love him. Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right has three daughters. The boy on the left has a son. Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right’s father hates you. The boy on the left’s mother hates you. Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right says “Til death do us part.” The boy on the left says, “For all the days of our lives.” Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right says, “I will wait for you.” The boy on the left says, “Wait for me.” Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right is almost full. The boy on the left is still hungry. Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right writes poignant, meandering poems. The boy on the left writes sharp, brusque prose. Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right has gone places. The boy on the left has a map. Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right points a gun to your head. The boy on the left points a gun to his own head. Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right pushed the fat man onto the tracks. The boy on the left was the fat man. Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right is a serial killer. The boy on the left is his lawyer. Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right taught you everything. The boy on the left learned everything from you. Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right believes in God. The boy on the left believes in you. Whom do you marry?


The boy on the right is conservative. The boy on the left is liberal. Whom do you marry?

 

On Equality

“For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and
when one prevails the other dies.”

We are taught as first principle that equality is good and an end in itself. This post seeks to complicate that notion. I hope to establish: (a) overall, more socioeconomic equality in our society would be a good thing, (b) equality is not an end in itself, (c) there are situations in which fighting for equality may be actively counterproductive.

I will focus on socioeconomic equality and equality of access to education.

What Kind of Equality?

Let’s begin with two seemingly separate notions of equality: equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. If fighting for equality of opportunity, we want a “level playing field,” then what we want is for everyone to get from birth the same opportunities in life, fight for the same openings, and let the most meritorious make the most money, get the most attractive mate(s), etc. Most people can get behind equality of opportunity.

Equality of outcome is basically socialism: everyone does whatever and then the state redistributes equally. Most people think equality of outcome is dystopian and unfair. People respond to incentives – and by taking away the fruits of their labors they will have no incentive to try, to git gud, to innovate.

Here are two major issues with the idea that we can be for equality of opportunity but not equality of outcome.

The first objection is that outcomes are the only way we have of detecting equality. The constant refrain of progressivism is that if the outcomes of two groups are different, then they must have experienced a difference in availability of resources, social capital, stereotype threat, etc. As long as a field is dog-dominated there must be systemic anti-felinism – if cats and dogs are treated exactly the same how could it be that more dogs end helping blind people?

It is certainly possible to find glaring and systemic inequality of opportunity, but when all the Jim Crow laws are gone and most seeing-eye animals are dogs – what do we do? Do we believe that dogs are biologically or culturally better suited for the job than cats? Do we believe cats temperamentally don’t like the job even though they were given the same opportunities? Or has the source of inequality sunk deeper and less formally into the fabric of the entire pet industry? It seems impossible to tell until blind people really start using seeing-eye cats at proportional rates.

The second objection is that differences in outcomes mean differences in opportunities for the next generation. If my dogs choose freely to go to puppy school and your dogs didn’t, five years later I will have a middle class brood of puppies with upstanding, well-mannered parents and yours will barely be potty trained. If we want equality of opportunity for our kids, we must then want wealth (in as many senses of the word as possible) redistribution for the current generation. Unless we start taking puppies from their parents and let the state raise them all together equally in communal pounds, equality of opportunity is deeply tied to equality of outcome.

It follows that equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are essentially the same thing. Let’s just call it equality.

Why do we want Equality?

One of the great thought experiments from political philosophy is the Rawlsian veil of ignorance:

Parties to the original position know nothing about their particular abilities, tastes, and position within the social order of society. When such parties are selecting the principles for distribution of rights, positions, and resources in the society they will live in, the veil of ignorance prevents them from knowing about who they will be in that society. For example, for a proposed society in which 50% of the population is kept in slavery, it follows that on entering the new society there is a 50% likelihood that the participant would be a slave. The idea is that parties subject to the veil of ignorance will make choices based upon moral considerations, since they will not be able to make choices based on self- or class-interest.

As John Rawls put it, “no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.”The idea of the thought experiment is to render obsolete those personal considerations that are morally irrelevant to the justice or injustice of principles meant to allocate the benefits of social cooperation.

Rawls says if you didn’t know who you got to be before being born, then you would want a more equal society. Let us examine two examples. We pretend there is no such thing as income for simplicity: people simply start with a fixed amount of money that they slowly spend on stuff until they go bankrupt.

Here are two societies, each with a thousand people and a billion dollars. In society A,one of those people owns all billion dollars. In society B, everyone has a million to zir name.

Clearly society B is more equal and preferable in this situation. Even if you are completely risk neutral, a billion dollars is not worth a thousand times a million dollars in utilons. A billionaire is not a thousand times happier than a millionaire. Because of concavity of utility (i.e. diminishing returns) we definitely prefer society B.

Here are two more societies, each with a billion people and a billion dollars. In society A’, a thousand of those people have all of the wealth – each is worth a million dollars. In society B’, everyone has a dollar to zir name.

Clearly society B’ is more equal – but which would you prefer to be born into? Let’s make the reasonable assumption that owning a dollar will not stave off starvation or homelessness for very long. I would take the one in a million to live comfortably in A’ over the certainty of dehumanizing poverty.

Thus we come onto the following principle:

  1. Equality is only preferable in a world of plenty. Inequality is preferable in a world of scarcity.

For many games in real life, everything is fixed-sum. You cannot imagine the counterfactual to inequality to be “everyone has the same amount of money as the richest person.” That is not a fair or realistic comparison. Would you prefer a world in which you take from a thousand well-off people to make everyone a tiny bit less stupendously poor?

So now, the question is: do we live in a world of plenty?

If you’re just talking about money in the US, then the answer is yes. According to our principle, socioeconomic equality is a great goal in a country where the average wealth is $301,000 (for comparison the median wealth is $44,900).  Although that is by no measure a stupendous amount of money it allows one to live comfortably albeit frugally for something like a decade here.

If you’re talking about money in the world, the answer is not so clear. Entire countries of people would get shafted in the redistribution, and the amount you end up with (estimates within an order of magnitude of $10,000) is hardly exciting.

Of course, there are still many great arguments against redistribution in the US that the thought experiment fails to capture. People respond to incentives and redistribution is the worst incentive conceivable. Also, deciding that an equal world is preferable in a vacuum is very different from saying we prefer to make a currently unequal world more equal by taking people’s property by force.

I hope the point is clear that equality is not always preferable.

Do we want equality in education?

Education is precisely the kind of situation where equality is probably not a productive goal.

First: in terms of educational opportunity, the US is a world of scarcity. Most of our schools and teachers are bad, and there are only a handful of private schools, charter schools, and pricey school districts where one can get what I would consider a passable education. I would prefer today’s US to one in which everyone had to go to a slightly less bad average public school.

Second: the value of education is not concave like the value of money. I would prefer for 1/12 of the population to graduate high school over everyone getting a first grade education. The best educated people are disproportionately valuable to society – not two or three times, but 10^2 or 10^3 times – for the amount of money spent on their educations (I believe – citation or correction needed).

I think this point deserves more attention, especially attention to the goals of the education system. If the goal is to give the populace decent educations so that they can live somewhat better, then some level of equality is a reasonable concern. If, on the other hand, the goal is to create value for the world, and to solve the challenging problems of the day – fix the economy, cure cancer, delay death, combat climate change, automate everything – then we cannot afford to give everyone a small amount of resources and fund each of 300 million people to work on these problems equally. Focusing resources on those who are most keen to learn and solve and already have the (any kind of) capital to make things happen is the way to go.

Third and finally: there are people who learn differently, but also there are people who learn better, and this difference is rarely fixable by any kind of intervention. I think most kinds of education reform that leads to improved average outcomes – say test scores – will also cause more, not less, inequality in education. If you replace a bad teacher with a good teacher, the stupid kids will learn better, but the smart kids will improve more. I predict that most of the countries with higher test scores than the US have just as much inequality, if not more, just shifted up (citation or correction needed).

I don’t think the picture is all that abysmal – certainly educational outcomes do suffer from diminishing returns eventually. There is only so much we can do for any given person to essentially max out their learning, and once this happens it is natural and right to move on to the next person. One day, when the US becomes a world of plenty, it will be time to fight for educational equality. But this is not that day.

Virtue Signalling to God

A lot of behavior is about virtue signalling. While others are watching, people are more likely to behave morally, tastefully, agreeably. Signaling you are a good person is at least as important to people as actually being a good person. This is instinctual, and it doesn’t take an evolutionary psychologist to understand why – being perceived as moral has all sorts of perks, so many and so unfailingly that – wait for it – the best strategy is to be as good as possible even on the off chance that someone is watching. As long as there is a chance anybody is watching – do good.

The more likely it is that someone is watching, the less likely it is for us to commit crimes. At one level, this is obvious and rational – mugging someone on a crowded street is just asking for trouble. But the distinction is this: that virtue signalling itself, because it works so often, is the instinct. Human instinct says: do good as long as anyone is watching, even if they won’t reward or punish you. Even when an amoral observer-scientist is simply recording your activities without any judgment, you would still act more conscientiously than usually (this is probably a big source of bias in psychology experiments). Evolutionary psychology isn’t complicated enough to figure out a strategy like: do good if people are watching, unless they don’t care. The instinct to virtue signal is there regardless of who the observer is: another “quantum” effect on morality!

The need to invent a conscious, omniscient observer for the benefit of society is evident. As long as you believe God is always watching your every move, He doesn’t have to care, He doesn’t have to judge, He doesn’t need to say anything you do is wrong – you will try subconsciously to virtue signal to Him.

Thus, while our morality certainly does not come from religion, the existence of God by itself, independent of any other doctrine or teaching, is enough to awaken our better angels – to make us follow our already developed conscience. Conversely a person with a very skewed and dangerous ethics will only be further damaged by the belief in God.

So at the end of the day, all I have done is propose a mechanism to explain common sense: Religion brings out the best and the worst in people. Because they’re virtue signalling to God.

Human Evolution

Disclaimer: I am not an evolutionary biologist by any stretch of the imagination. Disclaimer 2: Although I have very little confidence in the conclusions expressed in this particular post, people may be justified to call me a racist bigot anyway. I absolutely do not endorse hurting real people for the sake of evolution even if it would work.

Here’s a fun little explanation for something you might see if you go to college in America. Let me start by building the theory and see if its predictions match up with the realities.

Darwin said the two fundamental pieces of evolution are selection pressure and genetic variation. I think everyone can agree that the human gene pool is the largest and most diverse it has ever been. The problem is – there are very few selection pressures comparable to the kinds of pressures on humankind in prehistoric Africa. It is reasonable to imagine given these circumstances that human evolution has relatively stagnated in the last several thousand years – a world where the vast majority of people end up surviving to adulthood and reproducing.

Here are a few other nuances about evolutionary theory before we start applying it to human history. We learned in grade school that evolution happens on the timescale of millions of years, and two thousand years of history couldn’t possibly make a dent. Here are two counterpoints I want to make to this. First, on the level of individual alleles really visible differences can happen over a few generation. This is easy to see from race: the differences in skin color etc. are traced to at most a couple hundred thousands of years.

Second, one of the most important modern contributions to evolutionary theory is called punctuated equilibrium, which runs counter to Darwin’s notion that natural selection happens gradually and uniformly over time. Punctuated equilibrium tells us that a species remains relatively stagnant for most of its history, but rare and extremely stressful events such as the meteor that killed the dinosaurs (and 90% of everyone else) cause rapid bouts of evolution by introducing unheard-of selection pressures in comparatively very short time spans. The fossil record strongly supports this theory, that the vast majority of speciation events and real evolution occurs in concentrated bursts.

So here’s our model for how evolution works in general: for long periods of time, barely anything happens because there are no real changes in selection pressures. This is probably more true of sedentary agricultural human society than for any other species that has ever existed. When short severe selection pressures occur, the kind that suddenly wipe out (but not indiscriminately) more than half of your population repeatedly, evolution happens in rapid bursts.

So how about human evolution in the last millenia? Has anything really happened? Humans as a whole have not experienced any serious dip in population since the history of forever, so the answer must be no.

But this is a simplistic view because it doesn’t take into account that many groups of people have been so isolated reproductively from each other that for the purposes of evolutionary study they are essentially different species. And without a doubt these people have had massive existential crises.

As a casual student of history I can point out two groups of people against whom serious attempts of genocide have occurred repeatedly – the Chinese and the Jews. Let’s start with the Jews: they are a perfect example because they had a small population, historically rarely interbred with surrounding populations, and were just persecuted and killed all over the place. Pogroms happened in Europe for at least a hundred years before Hitler. And some two thirds of European Jews died in the Holocaust alone.

Very much the same can be said about China in the last two centuries. After an entire millenia of brutality by various groups – the Mongols, the Manchus, ethnic Han Chinese ourselves – starting in the 19th century Western and Japanese imperialism, and later on Mao, killed a lot of Chinese people. This is a long and awful chapter of history – starting before the Opium War, going through various neocolonial shenanigans, highlighted by the atrocities committed by the Japanese, and ending in the tragic lunacy of Mao – someone I might consider an incredible hero had he only died two decades early.

I don’t want to go too far down this road but the point is that these are repeated genocides against populations of humans and there can be no question that some divergent evolution occurred, although its scale and its direction are certainly more suspect. I would argue that the kinds of pressures experienced by the Jews and Chinese selected for traits like intelligence, tenacity, resistance to mental illness and these are reflected strongly in their phenotypical differences especially in the United States and to a lesser but still significant extent worldwide. Jews and Chinese Americans dominate the top colleges these days and get the highest-paying jobs out of any race. Chinese Americans experience the lowest rates of mental illness. I could go on.

Now buckle in, because there are a lot of caveats.

First, the immigrant population in America is not representative of the worldwide population. This is obviously true for the Chinese, as the vast majority of recent immigrants are highly educated and skilled workers due to American immigration policy. The outcomes in China proper are certainly less absurdly skewed – but still there is some evidence that Chinese people overall have higher average IQs than any other race. Other immigrant groups also face similar barriers of entry and fail to perform the same way as Chinese immigrants. Furthermore, I don’t think this can be very true about American Jews, especially since more than 40% of the world population is here.

Second, it can be argued that much of Chinese and Jewish success can be attributed not to genetic differences, but to memetic – i.e. cultural – differences. I think these two are very difficult to disentangle, but to do so is also besides the point. It is clear that culture is heritable and much harder to transmit than one might imagine, and that it reacts to genocidal massacres if anything more rapidly than genetics. I would argue that many of the obviously superior cultural memes in Chinese and Jewish cultures are a direct consequence of the evolution aforementioned and probably the bigger part of all the evolution that occurred. Chinese culture has certainly evolved substantially and rapidly, as Chinese people a few centuries ago were comparatively culturally backwards just like the rest of the non-Western world of the time.

Third, other groups of people have also suffered historically for long periods of time and fail to have the same outcomes. I know too little about history to fully defend this point, but I would imagine that groups of people that experienced more than one genocide are pretty rare and come out genetically and memetically richer for it. Also a significant nuance is that genocide is not enough: the actual selection pressures involved – if any existed – must be examined on a case-by-case scenario. A nuke dropped on Hiroshima did nothing for the Japanese. The awful things done to black slaves in America probably did not end up selecting for intelligence – there is evidence that slaves that were too smart were actively culled. It’s not obvious that all of the awful things that happened to Jews and the Chinese were positive from a genetic point of view.

I think I will stop here, but hopefully I have opened the door to a fun and morbid way of examining history grounded in evolutionary science.