The Problem With Solutions
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Some of you may recall my review of The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant. If you don’t, allow me to summarize. It was a book which contained an enormous amount of insight, assembled during the decades they spent studying historical events and societies, and while reading the book I spent the vast majority of that time in deep appreciation of their scholarship and wisdom. That is until the last chapter when they decided that they would close out the book with some very specific policy proposals. These recommendations were made at the tail end of the Civil Rights Era during Nixon’s presidency, and perhaps times were more different than I imagine. But reading them now, most of their suggestions appear hopelessly naive, combining both insane ambition with a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature. As an example I offer up their very first suggestion:
Parenting as a privilege and not a right. People should have to pass physical and mental tests before being allowed to breed.
(And you thought the resistance to masks was intense! How would one enforce this? Compulsory abortions?)
At the time I think I wrote the suggestions off as an artifact of the time in which they were writing, when great big government initiatives still looked like an effective method for problem solving. (I guess some people continue to hold this opinion, but I’d venture to suggest that even hard core advocates of government solutions would still blanche at proposing that people pass tests before being allowed to breed.) Since reading Lessons of History I have noticed a similar pattern in other books:
There was Technopoly (reviewed here) where Postman’s solution was to implement education standards so comprehensive and ambitious that no child could possibly be expected to meet them.
There was The Hour Between Dog and Wolf (reviewed here) where the solution was extensive hormone testing of traders and other risk takers before allowing them to continue to take risks.
Finally, and the most extreme example I’ve encountered thus far, there was Civilized to Death by Christopher Ryan. I’ll be reviewing it at the beginning of October, but the solutions offered were so bad that I was really left with no choice but to write this post.
Before I get into my severe problems with Civilized to Death, let me be clear. All of these books were dead on in bringing to light the subtle problems of modernity we’re currently grappling with. And they were additionally very useful in identifying the source of these problems. Their utility is great enough that I would recommend reading all three books. As examples of my regard, I wrote a whole post in support of Amusing Ourselves to Death and I’ve recommended Hour Between Dog and Wolf to friends of mine who I thought were dealing with chronic work-induced stress. Civilized to Death is very similar in this regard. It's a great book for countering a certain brand of modern optimism, like that displayed by Stephen Pinker, in his book Enlightenment Now, an optimism I myself have frequently taken issue with. Civilization does have an enormous number of ill effects, and Ryan does a great job of pointing these out. But in the process of doing this he also makes three big mistakes:
In numerous places Ryan uses examples of a recent increase in some negative outcome in support of his premise that civilization is bad. But given that he basically belongs to the Jared Diamond, “The invention of agriculture was the worst mistake in the history of the human race” school, and defines civilization as everything that has happened since. It seems unlikely that, say, empathy decreasing by 40% over the last 30 years, has anything to do with our abandonment of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
As I’ve said before I bow to no man in my desire to criticize Steven Pinker, but Ryan fundamentally misrepresents Pinker’s argument, and ignores significant sources of pre-agricultural death.
Ryan’s solutions are entirely too small to deal with the size of the problems he points out. If we accept his premise that a hunter-gatherer society is the ideal state for human beings, how on earth do we get from 7.8 billion people being supported by a massive system of agriculture, to some, presumably vastly smaller number of hunter-gatherers?
In this post I mostly intend to talk about this third mistake, though I’ll have to bring in a lot of discussion of his second mistake in order to establish why the solutions are inadequate, so let’s begin there.
Ryan points out repeatedly that hunter-gatherers experienced essentially zero population growth, which he contrasts with the high population growth rate of agricultural societies, at one point describing it as the equivalent of a pyramid scheme, with more and more people needed to support the people already alive. It should be noted that in order to have zero population growth two children per woman have to survive until they themselves can reproduce. Which means that if hunter-gatherers had more than two kids that there was some death happening and if they had a lot more kids than that, then zero population growth corresponds with a lot more death.
Ryan’s own description of how things worked has hunter-gatherer women experiencing a later menses, at around 16, leading to their first child at 17. This was followed by three to four years of breastfeeding which was generally effective in keeping them from getting pregnant again. Once the child was weaned the whole process would begin anew. If, from this, we take five years as the maximum interval between offspring, and assume that they’re having children until their late 30s. (Both of which seem very conservative.) Then that gets us a total fertility rate (TFR) of 5. That’s my back of the envelope calculation, and after a little bit of looking around I found this paper which asserts that the !Kung have a TFR 4.69, which the paper’s authors consider to be on the low end of what they had expected. So rounding it off to 5 to match the other estimate seems pretty reasonable. Contrast this with the modern TFR necessary for zero population growth of 2.1, and we’re forced to conclude that deaths from all causes are 150% higher in hunter-gatherer tribes than in modern nation states.
Now Ryan is not entirely naive, he knows that there’s more death among hunter-gatherers than among modern individuals in a developed society, but he excuses this by pointing out that it’s mostly it’s children under the age of 15 who die:
Lest I be accused of romanticizing prehistory, let me be clear on this point: Foragers pay a very high price for their remarkable health, happiness, and personal freedom. And that price is exacted in a most precious currency: dead babies.
Among the aforementioned Hadza of Tanzania, for example, where researchers found amazingly healthy children, about one out of every five infants born dies in its first year, and 46 percent don’t make it to the age of fifteen—rates that reflect the median values for a broad survey of foragers. There’s nothing funny about that.
For the moment let’s set aside the discussion of whether this is a cost people would be willing to pay in 2020 for “remarkable health, happiness, and personal freedom”. Because despite his candor, this isn’t the whole cost. Even if we assume, what I feel is a pretty conservative TFR of 5 then 46% of people dying by the age of 15 only gets us down to 2.7 which means that we still have 26% of everyone remaining that’s going to die without reproducing if the population is to remain flat. This remainder is non-trivial, the Black Death is generally assumed to have killed about 50% of people, which means that you’re looking at the equivalent of half of that, for all of the thousands and thousands of years during which humans pursued a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
In comparing this to the Black Death, I don’t mean to imply that they all died due to disease. A study of history and archeology reveals that these additional deaths include every member of the big four: famine, pestilence, plagues, and war. (This despite Ryan’s assertion that war does not exist among hunter-gatherers, a blatant falsehood which could easily be the basis of a completely separate post.) The point being that this lifestyle, in addition to being exceptionally dangerous for the young, was exceptionally dangerous for everyone. Further this wasn’t some ecologically-perfect-in-harmony-with-nature-flat-population-for-thousands-of-years system. Where once you adapted to the occasional death life was great. This was the occasional, but very brutal up and down of feast and famine, where a population might quickly double and then just as quickly be slashed to a quarter of what it once was. Which is to say that once you start to leave the realm of infant mortality many of the deaths were due to enormous catastrophes, not isolated events.
Now to be clear, I am not saying that the mere fact of these deaths completely refutes Ryan’s argument. Certainly he has a point about many things, which is part of why it was so frustrating. Much of what he talked about in the book was important and necessary, but at a minimum he should have done a better job of acknowledging the arguments on the other side. There should have been a whole chapter, or maybe even several on this issue, instead he literally spends three paragraphs on it, all the important bits of which I included above (the first of the three paragraphs is his attempt at lightening the subject by talking about the dead baby jokes which started to appear in the 60s, though I remember hearing them in the 80s. Thus his inclusion of the phrase, “There’s nothing funny about that”.)
Now the choice between the modern lifestyle of a developed nation, and the hunter-gatherer lifestyle espoused by Ryan is far more complicated and actually far more difficult than just the trade off between “remarkable health, happiness, and personal freedom” and nearly half of all people dying before the age of 15 and another quarter dying in some other horrible fashion, but even if we were to restrict it to this vastly simplified construction, it’s still devilishly difficult to imagine a solution to this conundrum that would have any chance of being implemented, but Ryan attempts it anyway, and he comes up with…
Greater acceptance of death: Get rid of almost all end of life interventions and implement universal access to euthanasia.
Treat schizophrenia as something sacred and awesome.
Something, something, peer networks, something, something, Kickstarter
In contrast to the other three books I mentioned, Ryan suffers from an appalling lack of ambition. Not only are none of these items likely to make the slightest dent in (what he claims to be) an eight thousand year old problem but most of them are not even particularly novel.
Greater acceptance of death: I understand that while Granny is dying it’s difficult to make the decision to end life support, and thus at the moment of decision people end up requesting a lot of end of life interventions, but my sense is that outside of that, most people agree with Ryan on end of life care. As far as euthanasia, it’s important to once again reiterate that this is a need that has only developed over the last few decades. If he wants to talk about problems in that time span I’m all ears, as I have noticed the same trend and problems in that category are presumably far more tractable.
Treat schizophrenia as something sacred and awesome: This seems like a weird hill to die on. As far as I can tell the incidence of schizophrenia is just over 1% of the population, and even then, not all schizophrenics hear voices. While I can certainly see where our treatment of the mentally ill could use a lot of work, I’m not sure how this even relates to Ryan’s core topic.
Psychedelics: I’ve been meaning to do a blog post on psychedelics for quite a while but I’ve never gotten around to it, at least I don’t think I ever did. After 200+ posts I’m having a hard time distinguishing between what I wrote about and what I’ve only thought about writing. To be honest psychedelics intrigue me, but the idea that they have any impact at all is still reasonably controversial.
To preview the post I may never get around to writing, the big excitement these days is around microdosing, and while I think we are getting some interesting data from that, it feels like something that would be really hard to separate from the placebo effect. On the other side I know a lot of people took magic mushrooms or LSD in doses large enough to hallucinate and swear that it changed their lives. When I asked them to get concrete about that, did it make it easier to stay in relationships? Were they more productive, less angry, etc? They normally get pretty evasive. As one example there was someone I knew really well for over a decade, that I worked with and talked to on a daily basis. He claimed that he had had a life changing psychedelic trip, so I asked him, as a close observer of you, what difference should I have noticed? And despite emphatically claiming that it really was an amazing life altering event, in the end he couldn’t come up with anything that I, as a close external observer, would have noticed.
One final point, while, as I said, psychedelics represent an intriguing avenue, it’s hard to see that it has much to do with why hunter-gatherers had (according to Ryan) such awesome lives. Until they come up as a potential solution Ryan doesn’t even mention them (that I recall and the index of the book bears that out).
Something, something, peer networks, something, something, Kickstarter: I understand that I’m being somewhat snarky here. But Ryan appears to be falling into the same trap that those he criticizes keep falling into. (And to be fair he acknowledges this possibility.) That the distributed, less centralized world of the internet will somehow bring about a future Utopia. And I might grant him this if he didn’t provide so much data in his own book that contradicted this. Because every time he made the sloppy mistake of giving data on how bad things have gotten over the last decades (in support of trends spanning thousands of years) he undermined the argument that recent developments have the potential to make anything better. At best one might imagine that these changes have brought some positives (which no one, not even me denies) but these positives appear to be getting completely swamped by the negatives.
To reiterate, Ryan does bring up some interesting ideas in his chapter on solutions, but none of them would make my list of the top 20 things to change about the modern world, nor would the problems he’s focused on make that top 20 list either. From this you may gather that I have multiple top 20 lists, unfortunately not, I was only using the term metaphorically, but we have reached the point where it’s time to put up or shut-up. It’s easy to criticize other people’s solutions as being too ambitious, or not ambitious enough, it’s a lot harder to offer solutions of your own. But having come this far I pretty much have to. Though I am going to wimp out somewhat by offering standards for good solutions rather than specific solutions themselves (though from my standards you can probably infer the solutions.) So let’s finish the post off with some things good solutions should include. Though before I do, one final caveat, these aren’t all the elements a good solution should include but rather, a selection of things which I feel are frequently overlooked.
Solutions should be incremental: This is one of the things that Ryan get’s right in his book. He even brings up the idea that we have a certain rate of change we can manage when adapting to different circumstances and that recently this has been overwhelmed, as things have started to change at a rate faster than what we can adapt to. Of course, it would be inappropriate to let him off the hook completely. He mostly seems to assume, despite granting the presence of gradual adaptation, that we have yet to adapt the changes wrought by agriculture.
Solutions should not overlook the obvious: Any proposed solution is very likely to fail for some unforeseen reason. Perhaps you’ll get lucky and your solution will be the one that finally succeeds, but if it is going to fail, it should at least fail for some subtle and hard to predict reason, not an obvious reason that can be foreseen by nearly everyone. As long as we’re picking on books, Peter Zeihan’s book, The Accidental Superpower (which I reviewed here) fell into this trap. Though he was more offering predictions than solutions it’s nevertheless notable how glaring the absence of nuclear weapons was from his geopolitical assessments. Something very similar happened with the Iraq War. The naivete about how difficult it would be to rebuild the country in the wake of Sadaam’s overthrow is still breathtaking.
When suggesting solutions, understand the level at which the problem occurs: If many of our problems are due to no longer being hunter-gatherers that’s a problem that operates on so vast a scale as to essentially be immune to solutions. That said, there might be things a given individual can do, and to the extent Civilized to Death focuses on things at that level it’s a great book. To give a more subtle example, the other day I saw a mother on twitter urging people to “raise their sons to be men”. Her daughter had been out on a date where the boy broke down and cried because of the pressure attendant to dating. And then later this same boy provided a pizza dinner at his house despite knowing that the girl had celiac’s disease. Does anyone imagine that this boy’s parents are singularly incompetent? Or that he would have broken down and cried had this been an example of courting in 1880? I think the answer is clearly no to both. But by the same token the daughter almost certainly wouldn’t have had celiac’s if it was 1880 either. While clearly the problem of the weeping boy is somewhat more tractable than the girl with celiac’s. Both problems, the one she was excusing and the one she was condemning, are very much a product of the time and environment we live in.
Understand that every solution assumes a certain set of values: I’ve spoken before about the difference between optimizing for happiness and optimizing for survival. From my discussion of Civilized to Death you can probably guess that Ryan thinks we should optimize for happiness, and that if we could be much happier then it’s worth having nearly half of everyone die before the age of 15. To begin with I’m feeling pretty good right now, so while I can imagine that I would be happier as a forager, how much happier could I be realistically? Even if I could be twice as happy would I trade that for two of my four kids dying? And then of course the real kicker, is that There’s a good chance I wouldn’t exist at all in Ryan’s ideal world. Even if we assume that somehow I wouldn’t have ended up horribly near-sighted and food for tigers. There are a whole host of profound philosophical issues in this discussion, and it’s fine for him to advocate for one side over the other, but he should at least acknowledge that there’s a debate to be had.
If you’re really serious about a solution you should grapple with all of its implications: Closely related to the above, if you want your solutions to be taken seriously then you should make sure to explore all of the potential consequences of those solutions. I was reminded of this recently by an episode of the podcast Planet Money, where they explored how the Black Death had done an unprecedented job of reducing income inequality by killing 50% of all workers. When you break Ryan’s arguments down there would appear to be a lot of parallels between what he’s advocating and this situation. For example as I pointed out above even if you neglect the deaths before the age of 15, hunter-gatherers default to half a black death all the time. Ryan very conveniently gives lots of anecdotes about how awesome the forager life is, while never giving an example similar to the one I just gave, illustrating all of the implications of his advocacy.
And of course this is exactly the problem, it’s very difficult to disentangle your biases from the solutions you choose to offer. I think Civilized to Death is a rather stark example of authorial bias, but all of the other books I mention also clearly have their biases, and I’m obviously not free from bias either. So what’s the solution to bad solutions? What’s the meta-solution? I have already offered a few ideas, but beyond that, I think the most important thing is to exercise humility. I understand that it seems like kind of a cop-out to point out problems and then refuse to offer solutions, but I think it’s equally clear that a bad solution is worse than no solution at all.
There is one thing though, one solution so powerful that it will solve global climate change, bring harmony to US politics, justice for the oppressed and beyond that universal wealth and happiness. What is it? Donating to this blog. Don’t believe me? Well have you tried?