November 26, 2014

This op-ed by one Razib Khan in Tuesday’s NY Times, on the evolution of domesticity in cats and humans, reminded me of a train of thought I’ve taken from time to time over the past few years, so now I feel like posting something on it.

It started for me in 2006 when another Times article introduced me to Dmitri Belyaev, a Soviet geneticist who boldly defended modern evolutionary theory in the age of Stalin and Lysenko, and went on to begin a long-range experiment with Siberian foxes and other wildlife. His goal was to establish and study the heritability of characteristics tending towards domestication, and his method was the classic method of animal breeders throughout time, such as those who inspired Darwin: collecting a batch of animals, selecting and separating out for breeding those with at least some trace of the trait desired – docility in this case, or (for the sake of contrast) aggression – and repeating the process for each generation so as to create in the end two distinct populations: one with the temperament of house pets, the other so aggressive it cannot be handled at all.

More recently, the work of Belyaev was referenced by Harry Turtledove, the Byzantine historian turned alternate-history writer, in a short story called It’s the End of the World As We Know It, And We Feel Fine (Analog, March, 2013). Turtledove describes a future in which humankind has finally dealt with the danger of totally destructive warfare by deliberately breeding all the aggression, nastiness and egotism out of itself. In this world almost everybody is compulsively nice; also rather plump, and with other physical markers that go with domestication (I don’t recall whether they have floppy ears as well). The reader may well sense (at least I did) a certain authorial dyspepsia, an attempt to communicate that there’s something’s wrong with this picture and that something essentially human has been lost, but the story is well-enough written to avoid excessive heavy-handedness; the future is presented fairly on its own terms.

(Just a day or two before I read “End of the World” I had been leafing through a book in the self-help and business management category, suggesting among other things that we can improve both our mood and our effectiveness by toning down the words we use to think of and describe situations; dialing back from “catastrophe” and “disaster” to maybe “misfortune, problem, unpleasantness.” So I was delighted to find that Turteldove’s characters call the near-total war that led to their Belyaevization “The Big Fracas.”)

But what I have been thinking on and off since 2006 is more along the lines of the Razib Khan op-ed – a kind of long-term natural Belyaevization, going back to the first human societies and intensifying as communities have grown larger and more complex. With each stage in our history, reproductive advantage has shifted away from the wilder and tougher among us, in favor of those who are best able to get along and follow the rules of their community. It can’t be helped; this is how we are, for better or for worse; probably for better, as the alternative would be for us not to have made it this far.

It is perfectly possible – as demonstrated with lactose tolerance – for significant differences in heritable traits to have developed among human populations within the relatively short span of human history. Maybe some of the alleged differences in personality and aptitude that have been taken (disparagingly) to correlate with primordial “races” might in fact really exist at some level, but only as a fairly recent development, depending on whether or not a given population has within the past couple of millennia gone through the Belyaev pressure-cooker of agriculture and urbanization.

Several years ago, when I started noticing the name of George Barna and his research group in newspaper reports about religious trends in society, I signed up for his email updates. I’m glad I did, they make fascinating reading. Barna is an evangelical Christian who uses polling techniques to study trends and suggest strategies for growing the church. Although his world view and his purposes are very different from mine, I don’t perceive him as a “fire and brimstone” type at all, and moreover he seems to be a reasonably scrupulous  pollster, so I find it interesting to see what trends he considers important and how he feels about them. The first thing I noticed is that he tries to be precise and objective in his use of the terms “born again” and “evangelical,” not relying on people’s use of those words to characterize themselves but rather assigning them according to the answers to particular questions: the “born again” (a bit over 40% of the US population)  are those who answer affirmatively to having made a personal commitment to Christ and to relying on him only for their salvation; the “evangelicals” are a subset of the “born again,” less than 10% of total pop., who give the “theologically correct” answers to 7 other questions. My point isn’t that these are the only or best ways to define these terms, but that I respect Barna for his effort to be clear and consistent with them.

It goes without saying that many of the trends which Barna finds worrisome are ones which I and my fellows on the Liberal- to Non- religious end of the spectrum tend to feel good about, but this doesn’t mean we can’t agree on what the facts are.

Anyway, at the end of each year he does an article defining the themes that have emerged in his research, and this year’s Six Megathemes are:

1. The Christian Church is becoming less theologically literate.
What used to be basic, universally-known truths about Christianity are now unknown mysteries to a large and growing share of Americans–especially young adults…. few adults believe that their faith is meant to be the focal point of their life or to be integrated into every aspect of their existence.. a growing majority believe the Holy Spirit is a symbol of God’s presence or power, but not a living entity…

Of course Barna has his own conservative Protestant view of what “theological literacy” should entail, but I can agree with him that relatively few Americans regardless of their church affiliation share that view or even have a clue what it is.

2. Christians are becoming more ingrown and less outreach-oriented.
…Christians are becoming more spiritually isolated from non-Christians than was true a decade ago… most Americans are unimpressed with the contributions Christians and churches have made to society over the past few years. As young adults have children, the prospect of them seeking a Christian church is diminishing–especially given the absence of faith talk in their conversations with the people they most trust.

3. Growing numbers of people are less interested in spiritual principles and more desirous of learning pragmatic solutions for life.
…Spiritual practices like contemplation, solitude, silence, and simplicity are rare… Practical to a fault, Americans consider survival in the present to be much more significant than eternal security and spiritual possibilities. Because we continue to separate our spirituality from other dimensions of life through compartmentalization, a relatively superficial approach to faith has become a central means of optimizing our life experience.

I wonder if this is really new, or if people are just more self-aware and up-front about it. I’ve always suspected that many religious affiliates are there for the community rather than the doctrine. Anyway, the “superficial approach to faith” as well as Barna’s fear of “theological illiteracy” bring to mind Albert Mohler‘s characterization of the real religion of young Americans as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” – a kind of common-sense feel-good belief system that is of course abhorrent to a good Southern Baptist theologian like Mohler…

4. Among Christians, interest in participating in community action is escalating.
Largely driven by the passion and energy of young adults, Christians are more open to and more involved in community service activities than has been true in the recent past.

Here’s one bit of good news even to Barna, although he cautions that

…churches run the risk of watching congregants’ engagement wane unless they embrace a strong spiritual basis for such service. Simply doing good works because it’s the socially esteemed choice of the moment will not produce much staying power.

5. The postmodern insistence on tolerance is winning over the Christian Church.
Our biblical illiteracy and lack of spiritual confidence has caused Americans to avoid making discerning choices for fear of being labeled judgmental. The result is a Church that has become tolerant of a vast array of morally and spiritually dubious behaviors and philosophies… There are fewer and fewer issues that Christians believe churches should be dogmatic about.

Again, a problem for Barna, a cause for celebration at my end of the spectrum. Still, as I said, he’s not a “fire and brimstone” type, and recognizes the need for the church to find a “delicate balance between representing truth [as he understands it] and acting in love.”


6. The influence of Christianity on culture and individual lives is largely invisible.
Christianity has arguably added more value to American culture than any other religion, philosophy, ideology or community. Yet, contemporary Americans are hard pressed to identify any specific value added. Partly due to the nature of today’s media, they have no problem identifying the faults of the churches and Christian people.

OK, he says “partly.” I would say the media have simply informed us of more of the faults that were already there.

In summary, we live “in a society in which choice is king, there are no absolutes, every individual is a free agent, we are taught to be self-reliant and independent, and Christianity is no longer the automatic, default faith of young adults.” For Barna this is a challenge, for me it is a cause for celebration.

I expect to write more in days to come about the varieties of conservative theology, and about the fact that one and the same culture and society can be too “Christian” for many of us and at the same time frustratingly “unchristian” for people like Barna and Mohler…


December 13, 2010

No time to really think anything through today, but I resolved to try to do one blog post a day for as long as I can manage, so here’s something I found in Kevin Lewis’  social science research roundup (referred to in my post of Dec 8):

Hanaki, N., Kirman, A., Marsili, M., Born Under a Lucky Star?, Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization (2010), doi:10.1016/j.jebo.2010.11.009


This paper suggests that people can learn to behave in a way which makes them persistently unlucky or lucky. Learning from one’s own experience, as it reinforces a few lucky or unlucky outcomes in early periods, will lead them to repeatedly make choices that lead to lucky or unlucky outcomes. In this situation, people have reasonably learned to behave as they do and their behavior is consistent with their experience. The lucky ones were not “born under a lucky star”; they learned to be lucky.

This is based on a mathematical study of strategies people use to find a parking spot. “Lucky” strategies are ones that maximize the possibility of finding a more favorable spot by declining to settle for a less favorable one, even at the risk of failing to find a spot at all and having to pay an exorbitant garage fee. Of course, the authors suggest, some people are inherently more risk averse than others and so more likely to “settle,” but even among equally risk-averse people some will manage in the course of time to “learn” lucky strategies, and others will not. The mathematics of this is clearly way beyond me – things like “Nash equilibria” – but like a lot of things that are beyond me, it is still suggestive…

This reminds me that Larry Niven hypothesized in one of his Ringworld novels that luck might actually be hereditary. He posited a situation in which, in a typical sci fi overpopulated future, reproductive rights (above one child per couple or something like that, as I recall) are allocated in a lottery. If luck (whatever it really is, however it really works) is something that can be inherited, then, by Darwinian selection, after a number of generations the descendants of a direct line of lottery winners will be extremely lucky…

David Brooks’ op ed in yesterday’s New York Times, “Social Science Palooza,” brought to my attention Kevin Lewis’ daily roundup of the latest social science research. Egad, this is fascinating! Just looking over the last few days’ worth of entries I have found the following items of particular interest to me, and which I could easily be persuaded to sit down and read in their entirety and ignore everything else I’m supposed to be doing:

1. a paper applying the latest methods of economic analysis to the data in Domesday Book in order to evaluate productive efficiency in 11th Century England;

2. a forthcoming study of caste and trade in Indian villages, showing what I’ve always suspected, that people are better off where the local landowning caste isn’t too exalted;

3. a comparison of contractual and covenantal understandings of the U.S. Constitution –


4. “Anti-consumption in East Germany: consumer resistance to hyperconsumption,” by Pia A. Albinsson, Marco Wolf and Dennis A. Kopf, Journal of Consumer Behaviour, November/December 2010, Pages 412-425 (I like this bit at the end of the abstract: “Based on our findings, we make suggestions for marketing practice…”)

5. “The End of the Solidly Democratic South: The Impressionable-Years Hypothesis” by Danny Osborne, David O. Sears, and Nicholas A. Valentino, Political Psychology, no. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2010.00796.x
– I’ve always felt there should be an “impressionable years” hypothesis, and now I see there really is one!

I just may keep padding my blog with this stuff…