Two Faces of Dreamtime

In the US:


In China:

More than 30 years after China’s one-child policy was introduced, creating two generations of notoriously chubby, spoiled only children affectionately nicknamed “little emperors,” a population crisis is looming. … The average birthrate has plummeted to 1.8 children per couple. …  The imbalance is worse in wealthy coastal cities with highly educated populations, such as Shanghai. Last year, … [its] birthrate was less than one child per couple. …

Officials have gradually softened their stance on the one-child policy. … In July, Shanghai became the first Chinese city to launch an aggressive campaign to encourage more births, … [but its] more urban districts report no change. …

Financial considerations are probably the main reason. … “We were at the center of our families and used to everyone taking care of us. We are not used to taking care of and don’t really want to take care of others.” … It’s about being successful enough to be selfish. … “A mother has to give up at least two years of her social life. … You have to remodel your apartment … You have to have a résumé ready by the time the child is 9 months old for the best preschools.” Most of his friends are willing to deal with this once, Chen said, but not twice.

Try to see such events via the eyes of our distant descendants in a few centuries or millennia, with a vast powerful civilization of folks who, like our distant ancestors, are happy but poor, achieving personal goals via behaviors well adapted to a larger civilization’s preservation and growth.  They will truly marvel at our dreamtime, when folks were so individually rich and self-indulgent that they mainly believed whatever it seemed pleasant to believe, and did whatever it seemed pleasant to do.  Compared to our descendants:

Our lives [today] are far more dominated by consequential delusions: wildly false beliefs and non-adaptive values that matter.

Added: Since 1990, US folks who have felt in touch with dead folks is up 17 to 29%, and those who have been in the presence of a ghost is up 9 to 18%.

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  • Sean

    The Washington Post article is actually incorrect. By the time the one-child policy went into effect, the birthrate had already dropped below 2. The birthrate of six, post-famine, was a very short event, and quickly dropped. The draconian measures used had a tiny effect, if any.

    For more information on this, I recommend the articles written by Wang Feng at UC Irvine ( He has been worried about the low birthrate for years.

  • anon

    Our pre-dreamtime ancestors most likely had religious and mystical experiences, so viewing them as a sign of our self-indulgence or peculiar beliefs seems unjustified.

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      Agreed (though I would have phrased it as pre-industrial – in any event, plenty of lands stricken with periodic famines, bumping up against Malthusian limits of their own, had religions too). What seem bizarre to me is the scale of the change from 1962-2009. Forget the scale of centeries or millenia, either future or past. What changed so sharply over a mere 47 years, to make reported spiritual experiences rise by a factor of 2??? Maybe exposure to digital electronic signals is toxic to bullshit detectors?

      • Jeffrey Soreff

        The last sentence is intended to be tongue-in-cheek, but my notation to that effect was swallowed by the software…

      • Prosperity is toxic to bullshit detectors (among other things).

  • Bill

    I was a little worried about my fellow Americans when I looked at the chart about religious or mystical experiences.

    Not to fear: they defined the term in the survey as follows: “Nearly half of the public (49%) says they have had a religious or mystical experience, defined as a “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening.” ”

    Well, I have sudden insight on this website, maybe even mystical at times.

    • Curt Adams

      But have you had sudden *religious* insight on this blog? Because that’s what the question asks. Sure, I’ve had insight reading this blog but no desire to convert to Hansonism.

  • Sean, thanks for the correction; I dropped the incorrect phrase from my quote.

    Anon, we have much better reasons to be skeptical of such experiences than were our distant ancestors.

    Bill, I added to the post to address your issue.

    • Matthew C.

      Anon, we have much better reasons to be skeptical of such experiences than were our distant ancestors.

      I suppose anyone expecting the arrival of “Ems” soon would be quite sure about this. 🙂

  • Bill

    I wonder if the increase in dead folk communication and ghost visitation is due to popular television shows that that have ghosts in them as part of the theme. Would be curious to look at ghost/angel programming over time and whether it correlates with these beliefs.

    How many believe in Santa. That’s the real question.

  • “Our lives [today] are far more dominated by consequential delusions: wildly false beliefs and non-adaptive values that matter.”

    Would these delusions include economics, government, justice, and tribalism, just to name a few?

    To many systems, making impersonal claims on your time impedes your ability to build a robust intuition.

  • Psychohistorian

    “Added: Since 1990, US folks who have felt in touch with dead folks is up 17 to 29%, and those who have been in the presence of a ghost is up 9 to 18%.”

    Doesn’t this say more about our undead than it does about the living?

  • Buck Farmer


    Your dream-time is a very cool idea. Very reminiscent of Leto II’s Golden Path in the Dune Chronicles.

    But what confuses me is: why would we expect this pattern never to repeat? If we spread out through the stars, why shouldn’t any individual human community isolated as they are to a single planet/system not form another tightly connected network maladapted to those particular conditions?

    I guess I don’t understand well enough what unique conditions are giving rise to the current dream-time and why analogous conditions could never appear again. It seems like maladaption is an eternal truth of a dynamic universe, and sometimes we’ll be able to afford maladaption and sometimes we won’t but on average we’ll keep adjusting and the universe will keep changing (where the universe involves other living/thinking things).

    So what’s so unique about now that it’ll never happen again?

    • If we spread to other star systems it probably will happen again and again, but only briefly each time. And if it is our electronic descendants who spread, very, very briefly given how quickly they could spread to fill a newly opened system.

  • Bill

    Children apply Pascal’s wager (even though the existence of God cannot be determined through reason, a person should wager as though God exists, because you have something to gain and nothing to lose) to Santa Claus.

    Maybe you need to apply Pascal’s wager to ghosts. What’s there to lose.

    • Buck Farmer

      Eh. I’d say Pascal’s Wager is evidence of what Robin calls our self-indulgence.

      Believing in undead is expensive in that it has implications for our behavior, and if nothing else our attention and mental states.

      Believing in God is also similarly expensive, but at least he promises us milk and honey up on rock candy mountain. The undead just bang around like relatives who think inviting their friends, dog, and postman unexpected are the most natural thing to do while you’re going through a personal crisis. They’re downright insensitive!

      In conclusion:

      EV(Not believe) >> EV(Believe) = EV(Not believe) – C(Believe) + R(Believe)

      Cost for believe (C) > 0
      Return on believe (R) = ???

      My gut says this is a poor wager.

  • Violet

    Being religious might be an evolutive advantage.

    Theist people seem to have a higher birthrate than atheists.

    Of course it may seem stupid and irrational, but if it results in more viable offspring then evolution does not care.

    • Buck Farmer

      Does theism -> higher birthrate?

      Theism seems to generate the full spectrum…you’ve got sects for whom reproduction is a moral imperative, sects that forbid contraception, sects that permit contraception, and sects that forbid you from interacting with a member of the opposite sex (Shakers, anyone?)

      Naturally, it seems that sex that are anti-reproduction get…out propagated by sex that are pro or neutral reproduction. Still, human history since the industrial revolution has shifted away from quantity and towards quality (allegedly), so I take it that other forces are at play.

      People are getting more spiritual and less reproductive so I’ve not great faith that theism implies high birthrate.

    • Beliefs that result in a high birthrate, such as believing that contraception is a sin, give religions that hold them a competitive advantage over other religions. It’s just group selection. Doesn’t have anything to do with religion per se.

  • Noumenon

    You’re saying the Chinese are in the dreamtime because they think having children is too much trouble? I thought the dreamtime was about people holding ideological beliefs that don’t conform with reality. Whereas not wanting children can be a simple economic decision –cost versus benefit — with no ideology behind it either way. Unless you’re counting consumerism as an ideology that makes you choose your religion, spouse, and children like a consumer instead of to fit in with your tribe or whatever the “natural” way is.

    • Buck Farmer

      I think the argument is that our distant descendants would say the Chinese are in dreamtime because they can’t understand why someone would choose to have fewer children.

      This assumes our distant descendants are the product of many successive generations of selection towards this belief (which makes sense in evolutionary logic, but does it come out in the data?).

  • I don’t understand the connection between your two examples. Chinese people not wanting to give things up in order to have children aren’t “dreaming”. They’re asserting their desires over their genetic programming. It would be more accurate to say they are waking from a dream.