How Culturally Plastic?

Typical farming behaviors violated forager values. Farmers added marriage, property, war, inequality, and much less art, leisure and travel. 100K years ago if someone had suggested that foragers would be replaced by farmers, critics could easily have doubted that foragers would act like that. But tens of thousands of years was enough time for cultural variation and selection to produce new farming cultures more compatible with the new farming ways.

A typical subsistence farmer from a thousand years ago might have been similarly skeptical about a future industrial world wherein most people (not just elites) pick leaders by voting, have little religion, spend fifteen years of their youth in schools, and are promiscuous, work few hours, abide in skyscrapers, ride in fast trains, cars, & planes, and work in factories and large organizations with much and explicit rules, ranking, and domination. Many of these acts would have scared or offended typical farmers. Even those who knew that tens of millennia was enough to create cultures that embraced farming values might have doubted a few centuries was enough for industry values. But it was.

In my book The Age of Em I describe a world after which it has adapted to brain emulation tech. While I tend to assume that culture has changed to support habits productive in the competitive em world, a common criticism of my book is that the behaviors I posit for the em world conflict with values commonly held today. For example, from Steven Poole’s Guardian review:

Hanson assumes there is no big problem about the continuity of identity among such copies. .. But there is plausibly a show-stopping problem here. If someone announces they will upload my consciousness into a robot and then destroy my existing body, I will take this as a threat of murder. The robot running an exact copy of my consciousness won’t actually be “me”. (Such issues are richly analysed in the philosophical literature stemming from Derek Parfit’s thought experiments about teleportation and the like in the 1980s.) So ems – the first of whom are, by definition, going to have minds identical to those of humans – may very well exhibit the same kind of reaction, in which case a lot of Hanson’s more thrillingly bizarre social developments will not happen. (more)

Peter McCluskey has similar reservations about my saying at least dozens of human children would be scanned to supply an em economy with flexible young minds:

Robin predicts few regulatory obstacles to uploading children, because he expects the world to be dominated by ems. I’m skeptical of that. Ems will be dominant in the sense of having most of the population, but that doesn’t tell us much about em influence on human society – farmers became a large fraction of the world population without meddling much in hunter-gatherer political systems. And it’s unclear whether em political systems would want to alter the relevant regulations – em societies will have much the same conflicting interest groups pushing for and against immigration that human societies have. (more)

Farmers may not have meddled much in internal forager cultures, nor industry in internal farmer culture. But when prior era cultural values have conflicted with key activities of the new era, new eras have consistently won such conflicts. And since the em era should encompass thousands of years of subjective experience for typical ems, there seems plenty of time for em culture to adapt to new conditions. But as humans may only experience a few years during the em era and its preceding transition, it seems more of an open question how far human behaviors would adapt.

We are talking about the em world needing a small number of humans scanned, especially children. Such scans are probably destructive, at least initially. As individual human inclinations vary quite a lot, if the choice is up to individuals, enough humans would volunteer. So the question is if human coordinate enough in each area to prevent this, such as via law. If they coordinate well in most areas, but not in a few other areas, then if there are huge productivity advantages from being able to scan people or kids, the few places that allow it will quickly dominate the rest. And in anticipation of that loss, other places would cave as well. So without global coordination to prevent this, it happens.

Peter talks about the possibility of directly emulating the growth of baby brains all the way from the beginning. And yes if this was easy enough, the em world wouldn’t bother to fight organized human opposition. However, since emulation from conception seems a substantial new capacity, I didn’t feel comfortable assuming it in my book. So I focused on the case where it isn’t possible early on, in which case the above analysis applies.

This whole topic is mostly about: how culturally plastic are we? I’ve been assuming a lot of plasticity, and my critics have been saying less. The academics who most specialize in cultural plasticity, such as anthropologists, tend to say we are quite plastic. So as with my recent post on physicists being confident that there is no extra non-physical feeling stuff, this seems another case where most people have strong intuitions that conflict with expert claims, and they won’t defer to experts.

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  • TB

    Odd that he mentions Parfit. Didn’t Parfit conclude that teletransportation is not much worse than ordinary survival?

  • Peter McCluskey

    I think I agree with you about plasticity, and disagree about something else.

    You seem to say here that human societies which allow kids to be scanned will dominate other human societies. But I don’t see how that scanning would have much affect on the productivity of humans.

    If there are plenty of em legal systems competing against each other, then I’d believe that one of them would find a way to scan a bunch of kids. But you say there will be a relatively small number of em cities, which suggests relatively little competition at that level.

    • My claim: there would be enough places that allow scanning of kids to support several em cities. Places far from those cities that miss out on the em economy may well not allow it. So that could be large fraction of Earth by area, yet still a small fraction by economic weighting.

      • Peter McCluskey

        I’m still puzzled by your claim that “the few places that allow it will quickly dominate the rest”.

        I’m guessing that you assume that places which allow scanning will own a substantial fraction of the resulting wealth, whereas I think it’s somewhat more likely that em cities will be mostly independent of the regions that do the scanning. I expect the profits made by whoever does the scanning will be large by the standards of a typical company, but not large compared to a country’s wealth.

      • In that quote, I was thinking in terms of em cities growing from local scans. If scans can come from elsewhere, then it is the places that have access to scans that will quickly dominate the rest.

  • I agree about the plasticity, and disagree with you on the other post. But not in the way that you think; it is not a question of saying that anything is “extra”. As I said there, you do not even seem to understand the position of the people who disagree with you.

  • J

    The big turning point in my view of your work was realizing that it hinges on “there exists” rather than “for every”. That is, originally I thought of it from a philosophical or public policy viewpoint: is this something I’d want, or that a significant subculture would want. But it doesn’t require me or a significant subculture to accept it; it just takes a few willing people.

    Makes perfect sense when I think like an economist: if ems can do things more cheaply, they’ll win in the marketplace even if most people wouldn’t want to be one.

  • Friendly Man

    Typical farming behaviour was molded by unnatural selection for typical farmers in farming cultures.

    Many anthropologists would believe that one could steal a Sentinelese child at birth, and raise them in a Western industrial society, and they would grow up as something similar to a typical Canadian or Japanese or Hungarian. That sums up all the consideration that their ‘expert’ status should be given.

  • Dave Lindbergh

    The forager > farmer transition may have involved genetic evolution as well as cultural evolution.

    • It may have been involved, but it doesn’t seem to have been necessary.

      • Not just “may”, we know that there was evolution for things like digestion of their different diet.


    Farmers didn’t know what they were missing vs. foragers, plus at a certain point there were too many of them to be sustained through foraging so there was no choice. As icing on the cake there was organized religion to keep farmers in line (I suppose that’s cultural plasticity foragers would not have predicted). My personal theory is that the transition from foraging to farming wasn’t voluntary in most cases but rather a military matter.

    With industrialization it also didn’t take long for it not to be a choice anymore due to population growth and there also was a fair bit of military-backed coercion involved. Still I’m not sure ancient farmers would have been that much opposed to industrial life if they had known about the material, lifespan and safety gains that industrialization would eventually bring.

    With a transition to an em society I doubt it will be based on religion and life won’t be better for ems so that won’t be motivation either. Population growth could be artificially halted in an em society so in theory they would have a way to over time get rid of the worst aspects of em life, unlike the scenario you (Robin) have painted. But it could be a military matter (ems, or their masters, would have vast economic power and could shield themselves against radiation, etc…) and there is the possibility of early heavy selection towards subservient, meek workaholic types with certain philosophical views on identity so I don’t rule out the emergence of an em society at all, perhaps even one as bleak as the one in your scenario.

    • You might think em lives are worse, but I don’t think they will think so. And controlling em population requires global coordination, which we have so far been bad at.

      • IMASBA

        Selected ems (which may soon grow to be a majority) will think it’s better. I’d wager initially most of them, and most humans won’t agree.

        Population control can be done regionally with ems from overcrowded regions simply not being allowed into other regions or consume resources from those regions, just like today someone from Bangladesh can’t freely to move to France.

      • While the anthropological consensus favors behavioral plasticity, it disfavors welfare plasticity. Cultures differ on their promotion of human flourishing, and few anthropologists disagree.

        Ems’ beliefs about whether they’re worse off is an issue apart from the reality of their welfare: it’s a question regarding their ideology. I would think it very hard to predict whether em ideology will extol or bemoan the ems’ own culture. Belief in a past golden age isn’t a human rarity. Since there’s no going back, this a golden-age ideology would be innocuous.

      • What do you mean by the “reality of their welfare”? I know the farmer vs forager diet has been compared, but that won’t apply to machines. A Darwinian might ask about relative “fitness”, but I don’t think that’s what anthropologists typically do.

      • Satisfaction of psychological needs.

      • So if ems are mistaken about being better/worse off it’s a matter of having incorrect beliefs about the past (our present) to compare themselves to?

      • More likely they’d be mistaken about their present. Folks readily see themselves as happy when they’re miserable. Being unhappy can signal weakness or other failings, and people come to internalize their denial of their misery. Clinically, it’s called masked depression.

        You see it as the dominant mood among poor American whites. You might expect them to be sad, but they’re chronically angry instead. Mass low-grade irritable depression, which they don’t construe as a form of misery. They will tell you they’re satisfied on their diets of tv, video games, and junk food. They’re not.

      • That’s verging on “false consciousness”. How does one determine that another is TRULY unhappy when they believe themselves to be otherwise?

      • Why not; I suppose because happiness is a quale? [Shrinks do it all the time.]

        Actually, there’s probably a way, if not to determine this, at least to approximate it: random contemporaneous reports of emotional state. Poor whites, I would predict, are in negative emotional states much of the time. People are forced to be more objective when they assess their emotions at each moment than when they form an overall estimate of their wellbeing. (Kahneman.)

        Applied to ems, they might be bored out of their minds much of the time (and admit it at the moment), yet maintain they are happy or satisfied.

      • Ok, that would be an actual way to take a measurement and I can see how “right now” self-reports could differ from “overall” ones.

      • I don’t want to equate human flourishing with right-now reports, as I’m actually more confident that there’s such a thing as (value-free) human psychological flourishing than I am that this would be a fair operationalization. (There are things like wireheading which raise doubts.) An indication in which I’d have more confidence is the incidence of psychoneurotic conflict. (But that’s foundationally question begging.)

        I think most anthropologists agree with something like this. Perhaps ironically, economists are more cultural-relativist. An engaging old book applying anthropological thinking to cultural criticism is Jules Henry’s Culture against Man. –

      • How does one determine that there is psychoneurotic conflict?

      • Following psychiatry, conflict is expressed in symptom patterns, including depression, compulsions, and phobia. The most important of the symptoms for diagnosing neurotic conflict are symptoms of character, such as narcissim or compulsivity. Most character disorders are concerned with responses to coercion (not in the libertarian sense), involving being, in one way or another, either irrationally submissive or rebellious.

      • It does seem a bit circular to say someone is unhappy if they’re depressed. That shifts the question into how to determine if someone is depressed aside from their self-reported happiness. The appropriate/rational amount of submission vs rebellion seems a bit of an odd thing for psychiatry to be focusing on. I guess the individual is assumed to be helpless in the face of much larger forces, so would this be in terms of interpersonal relationships?

      • That shifts the question into how to determine if someone is depressed aside from their self-reported happiness.

        That’s making progress, unless you think the diagnosis of depression necessarily depends on self-reported happiness.

        I think the agrarian revolution required accepting a far higher level of domination than humans are comfortable with. So domination is the main fault-line of psychoneurosis. (I’m not trying here to represent any consensus, but let me note that psychology increasingly rejects the “blank slate,” which would represent maximum plasticity. Humans can be brought to accept most anything, but they don’t like it.)

        [Domination is problematic in both personal relationships and work. There are consistencies in how neurotics construe situations as involving dominance and respond to those that do involve it. The passive-aggressive personality expects dominance behavior and compulsively resists. The narcissist always strives for dominance. The compulsive personality protects itself by strictly complying with all rules. The antisocial personality compulsively attacks authority. Etc.]

      • I don’t know too much about diagnosing depression, but yes I would have thought it depended on self-reports so that if someone claims to be happy one would assume they’re not depressed.

        One of the few things I did know about depression was that there is a tendency of “depressive realism” in which the depressed tend to have more accurate beliefs EXCEPT about their own likelihood of emerging from depression.

      • This equation of depression with a personal judgment of unhappiness actually prevades nonpsychiatric medical practice. It’s the main reason (imo) that many patients who need antidepressants don’t get them and those who do need them often don’t (receiving addictive antianxiety meds instead).

        A depressed person will (perhaps necessarily) be unhappy about something, but he won’t necessarily label himself as generally unhappy and, still more commonly, won’t exhibit sad mood. Often the mood is anxious or angry. In not a few cases of lifelong depression, the mood becomes ego syntonic.

        Let me emphasize that depression is only one symptom constellation indicative of not flourishing. When relating neurosis to culture, the personality disorders are probably a lot more important.

      • How does one know whether to prescribe anti-depression or anti-anxiety medication for someone exhibiting anxiety?

      • Specific symptomatic patterns indicate depression, such as variations in mood (diurnal or reverse diurnal); disturbances of sleep and appetite; psychomotor symptoms (such as agitation rather than ordinary anxiety); and persistent anhedonia (loss of capacity to experience of pleasure, as opposed to acute periods of misery).

      • marshall bolton

        Stephen, you seem to be talking from the world of psychiatry – and inside each world things make sense. But if I try to take your words into another world (e.g. psychology) then I get no sense whatsoever. I think TGGP is asking questions from an anti-psychiatry world and thus there are many questions and many answers but no contact. As an experiment could you succinctly say what you are saying without the use of psychiatric jargon? (I suspect that it will sound rather bland and meaningless – but please do try. :-))

      • My training is in psychology and my professional experience was in clinical psychology. I do rely on the psychiatrists for diagnosis.

        OK, if too much jargon, here’s one example expanded: People suffering depression often have a specific sleep problem of consistently waking up between 4 and 6 a.m. and being unable to fall back asleep. Ordinary anxiety does not produce this kind of insomnia (too technical? ;))

      • Thank you for that explanatory example.

      • marshall bolton

        Thanks Stephen &TGGP. I regularly wake up between 4 and 6 a.m. and cannot fall back to sleep. But I like getting an early start to the day. I would get very angry if I was “diagnosed” as depressed (actually I would probably laugh). I am sure there are correlations that back up what you say, but correlations do not give any meaning in and of themselves. Them we find and invent. Psychiatry is in my opinion a “false and circular expertise” and I think it is a shame that psychologists use it. We should be able to do it better and in ordinary language that re-describes “anxiety” “depression” “neurotic conflicts” etc. so it no longer stigmatises or mystifies.

      • That reminds me: I’ve read that in the past, before electric lighting, it was common for there to be two periods of sleep within a day, separated by a period of wakefulness in between. Of course, I’d assume they began their sleep earlier in the day back then to allow for that extra interval.

      • I’m not sure about the accuracy of that claim, but it’s consistent with middle insomnia being (as it seems to be) the least psychiatrically significant of three onset times (initial, middle, and terminal).

        [Alarming how often sleep problems rooted in depression are treated with addictive sleep medications.]

      • I’m more of an early, in that I don’t get to sleep until rather late. Of course it’s exacerbated by my reading on the computer later than I should, but I’ve been like that as long as I can remember even when I was a little kid.

      • marshall bolton

        Can’t help feeling that we three are very much On-Topic here. We are all demonstrating our rigidity (lack of plasticity) whilst also showing our very humanness – interest in others, small talking on big subjects, ping-ponging and so on….. I don’t think Ems will show this behaviour because they no bodies have.

      • I don’t know. I’ve heard having a regular sleep schedule discourages insomnia, and I don’t think I’ve ever gone through a sort of regimented living situation (the military or prison might work like that) which would ensure I consistently went to bed and got up at the same time.

      • marshall bolton

        The question of regimentation is very much On-Topic. Who is regimenting whom (and why). I prefer self-regimentation. IOS 10 has a nice little app for regular sleep patterns – if you play along.

      • I suppose I don’t mind my own insomnia enough to do anything about it, I was just musing about plasticity with the regimentation comment.

      • marshall bolton

        Yes! We prefer to hang on to our aberrations. Self-improvement programmes are a universal hoax we play on ourselves and others.

      • Not having taken on any self-improvement programs, I can’t say personally whether any of them are hoaxes.

      • marshall bolton

        Now you are being coy TGGP. Why haven’t you tried to improve yourself? (I am of course quite happy that you haven’t.)

      • I’m a satisficer, and generally satisfied.

      • marshall bolton

        Nice strategy. Seems to work too.

      • Satisficing, I would think, is a bias. (Perhaps should be called the “complacency bias.”) Seems like an over-correction to whatever bias causes us in some endeavors to underestimate information costs.

        [For a slightly more concrete criticism of satisficing, see “Good enough” consumerism and the myth of imperfectibility ]

      • Your post seems mostly from the perspective of a producer rather than consumer. The consumer cares more about whether the product is good enough for their purposes than whether it is as good as the producer can make it.

      • marshall bolton

        A psychologist all too easily falls into the role of negativity (perhaps it should be called the “negative bias”. And if something is wrong (Find 5 Mistakes), then we should do something about it. I would thing Satisficing is a strategy for being satisfied with a tendency to being mean and lean rather than fat and lazy. (But then again I too am a psychologist and I do rather have a negative bias towards other psychologists. Sheer oneupmanship towards the professional oneuppers.)

      • Of course, a court should order you to take antidepressant drugs. A nurse or social worker should come by your dwelling daily to make sure you do.

      • marshall bolton

        That’s not funny and is actually quite feasible in my country.

      • What country is that?

      • marshall bolton

        Denmark. Cold, wet and cloudy but measured to be one of the happiest places on earth. I never meet these happy people. The surveys must be done in Tivoli. 🙂

      • You are correct that I have read some Dawes and Szasz, so I have some skepticism of the scientific basis of psychiatry (and a good deal of clinical psychology).

      • What is the difference between agitation and anxiety? And how does one determine it is capacity that is diminished? It can’t be permanence of mood, since you indicated that variations in mood are one such indicator.

      • marshall bolton

        This is crucial to your argument and moral standpoint. You think Ems will love it; I think Ems will hate it. You believe that humans have a large degree of plasticity, whilst I believe that humans are reality based but perverse. If Ems have access to information about how humans have lived and live, they will inevitably realise their impoverishment, enslavement and deception – leading to madness and badness. Clans will therefor have to establish total control of information. This is tyranny and I do not believe that people who have lived under tyranny loved it. I really do believe that the Em-Model is the direct result of applying Occam’s Razor to people: “Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity”. We really do need multiple entities and the luxury of luxury.

  • The recently deceased cultural anthropologist Henry Harpending might have scoffed at deeming his peers to be “experts”. The American Anthropological Association chose to stop calling their discipline a “science” in 2010, as many cultural anthropologists see themselves as being more in the mold of activism.

  • Joe

    Two questions:

    1. I have been wondering this for a while: why, exactly, was so much forager behavior focused on the internals of their group, and so little on dealing with other groups? How did the most successful forager groups respond when they met other groups – did they somehow manage to keep violence between groups to a minimum, as is suggested by their dislike of war? If so, how did they manage this? Did they just only meet other groups very rarely, and if so why?

    I guess I’m not sure I understand exactly how it could have been adaptive to have quite so much stories, art, and leisure – though the value of some measure of all of these seems easy to understand.

    2. An interesting feature of the em scenario, which I don’t recall you addressing in the book, is that every single em started out as a human, and remembers both their life in the human world, and the point at which they were first scanned and turned into an em. Even well into the em era, wholly new mind types will only ever be created by scanning a new human brain. What implications do you think this has?

    • Forager density was low, so each band of 20-50 only ever met a few others such bands in their lifetime. Young folks often moved to other bands, and so bands tried to stay on good terms with neighbors.

      If most ems were humans only when very young, they may not remember that much from that short youth period.