Civilizational Selection Events
Some months ago a friend wrote to me and asked me what I thought of the “metacrisis.” I wrote back a rather skeptical and critical email, panning the very idea of a metacrisis, which I took to be a production of the chattering classes, without any real weight behind it. However, I recently listened to an interview with Daniel Schmachtenberger that offered an intelligent exposition of the metacrisis. I am still suspicious of the idea, but I have come around far enough to acknowledge that it may be more than the kind of fluff that fills vacuous opinion journals.
After listening to Schmachtenberger, I arrived at my own formulation: The metacrisis is a civilizational selection event. This sententious statement requires exposition. In particular, there is a potential conflation lurking in the idea of a civilizational selection event, which could mean many different things, but I want to discuss two meanings that might be given to the term.
We can understand a civilizational selection event as an event (and a mechanism) that selects civilizations, or as an event (and a mechanism) that occurs within a civilization that has a selection effect on the population of that civilization (or some adjacent civilization, say, for example, through war). It would help to have the right intuitive terminology to distinguish these two forms of selection, which we can understand conceptually as the selection of civilizations (which civilizations may be selected for or against by other civilizations or by natural forces) and as the selection by civilization (where the mechanism of selection is civilization, and that which is selected for or against may be the population of the civilization, but also conceivably could be structures and artifacts built by civilizations). We can’t just indifferently call these civilizational selection, as this doesn’t intuitively distinguish the two, so I am going to call selection of civilization meta-selection (because something other than biological individuals are being selected for or against), and I will call selection by civilization civilizational selection (which is a special case of social selection, with the social group doing the selection being a civilization, but still it is biological individuals that are selected for or against). This terminology isn’t perfect, but I think it will be understood.
With this distinction made, calling the metacrisis a civilizational selection event means that it is civilizational selection, i.e., a selection event of the kind that that only happen within the context of a civilization, which selects for or against biological individuals as their traits are favored or disfavored by the nature of the selection event, which, in this context, means that form and function that civilization assumes that makes it select the individuals living within it, or exposed to its influence (for example, a population not part of a given civilization could be selected by an adjacent civilization through cooperation, competition, or conflict with the civilization in question).
Further complicating matters, a civilizational selection event that selects some members of the species would profoundly affect civilization, so this can also be an instance of meta-selection, but the selective effect primarily is one of reproductive success within a given context (with the context being a civilization). Additionally, a meta-selection event that selects for or against civilizations would obviously result in civilizations that would in turn exercise civilizational selection, so that meta-selection becomes civilizational selection at one remove, though the primarily effect is that of the success or failure of civilizations (differential survival and expansion of civilizations).
Civilization has existed for long enough now that it is just another environment that can be selective to the species living within it. Domesticated animals and plants are also selected by civilization, twice over, because they are selected by human beings for desirable traits, and then selected again by differential survival and reproduction within the context of civilization. That is to say, selective breeding by human beings reduces a domesticated animal population to a given desirable subset of the total natural population of that species, but within this desirable subset of the domesticated population, living under conditions of civilization (say, a herd of beef on a feedlot) will select for those that can live under these conditions, and select against those that cannot live under these conditions. Human beings exercise almost total reproductive control over beef cattle, but there are still some varieties that flourish under these conditions and some that do not. We select, but then our civilization selects again, even if it means losing a population we might prefer to retain. So there are several layers here, and it is important to distinguish the many different factors that bear upon selection events.
We ourselves are not immune from the selective effects of the conditions we have created. Human beings lived in the context of hunter-gatherer nomadism for more than 100,000 years, and maybe as long as 300,000 years. Stone tools date back to about 2 million years, and the use of fire about half a million years, so you can pick whatever threshold you like to represent a distinctive hunter-gatherer way of life, and what comes after that is no longer a hunter-gatherer way of life. We could also identify this threshold with the use of sewn clothing or the use of grammatically structured languages. Whatever convention we adopt, we recognize that there was one form of human society prior to this, and another form of society after this, perhaps with a long transition period between the two. The point here is that any of these periodizations are easily a period of time long enough to drive directional selection, though we have to distinguish between the directional selection of the environment, which included the last ice age, and the directional selection of the hunter-gatherer societies (and what followed them). The period of settled village agriculture, after hunter-gatherer nomadism and prior to civilization proper, is almost certainly much longer than the total period of civilizational proper, so that is civilization can exercise a selective effect during its ten thousand years or so, village agriculture also exercised a selective effect, which we carry around within us whether we know it or not.
The selection exercised by the physical environment and the selection exercised by human societies are of course integrated in actual experience, so that human cultural responses to living through an ice age are in turn selective features of society for the human beings constituting that society. We distinguish them for formal reasons, for purposes of analytical clarity, but the two influence each other. During this period of hunter-gatherer nomadism during an ice age the influence was mostly one-directional with the environment shaping human societies. Since the advent of civilization, human societies have had such a great impact on the environment that the influence is bi-directional, with human society shaping the environment and the environment shaping human society. These conditions may continue to shift until civilization exercises the primary selective influence, and the selective effect of nature is secondary, eventually trailing off to insignificance.
In any animal species that has something that might be called a culture, there will be cultural selection in addition to natural selection. Ethologists have only recently become comfortable speaking about chimpanzee cultures, as doing so has seemed to be a case of anthropomorphization — understood to be an unforgivable sin against science. This needs to change if we are to understand evolution at a more subtle level. For social species that live in large groups, these large groups exercise a selective effect on members of the social group, though we may not call a bird rookery a culture, clearly there are intra-species influence on the differential survival and reproduction of others of the species. There are also probably inter-species influences as well. Where species live in close proximity to other species, these selective effects may impact the survival and reproduction of more than one species involved in a single ecosystem. Social selection, then, is not limited to human beings or human societies, but is widely represented in the biosphere. As noted above, civilizational selection is a special case of the broader possibility of social selection.
Is there a natural (i.e., non-human) equivalent of meta-selection, in which it is not biological individuals or even populations beings selected, but something else? Insofar as we recognize ecological units larger than populations and their ecosystems, then meta-selection also occurs throughout the biosphere. Biospheric selection would be a form of meta-selection in which entire biomes might be selected for or against, and this is what happens with the ever-changing environment over geological time scales. When Earth entered into the Quaternary glaciation, the physical (cosmological) conditions of the planet entire selected for colder, drier biomes and against hotter, wetter biomes. Civilizational meta-selection is a special case of this kind of natural meta-selection.
I’m still thinking through some of the implications of the above, so there is yet much more to say on the distinction between selection and meta-selection, and how civilizations are selected and how they select, but, for the moment, a bit more about Schmachtenberger: in his conversation with Liv Boeree, he and the interviewer invoke “Moloch” as a personification of bad incentives that drive a race to the bottom, which they call “the god of negative sum games.” In a related vein, I was listening to a Dark Horse podcast (Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying) and I noticed that they have started to invoke “Goliath” as a term to identify “the force that opposes meaningful change” — another personification of a shadowy force shaping events. Better known (in some circles) is Curtis Yarvin’s invoking of “the cathedral” for the unseen coordination of elite opinion institutions. These three concepts — Moloch, Goliath, and the cathedral — are not identical, but they do overlap significantly. Schmachtenberger’s Moloch is some kind of a mechanism (like Adam Smith’s invisible hand) that drives perverse rather than favorable outcomes (Moloch strongly resembles Garret Hardin’s tragedy of the commons); Weinstein’s Goliath is a name put to some force that is skewing events in an inexplicable and suboptimal way; the cathedral of Yarvin explains who’s writing the narrative that justifies the perverse outcomes and inexplicable events.
Here we see that former normies are now noticing that there are a lot of things that don’t make sense if taken literally, and trying to make them make sense means positing something that is unobserved but only inferred, acting behind the scenes in order to bring about outcomes that seem perverse is judged prima facie — but we can only judge these outcomes prima facie because the necessary context to understand them is missing. Rather, not missing, but deliberately obfuscated. In such a context, taking anything at face value is to be distracted by surface level events that represent appearance, not reality.
That there is surface-level incoherence and hidden machinations occurring beneath the surface tempts us to invoke the “Deep State” as an explanation, but this is like invoking Dark Matter or Dark Energy to explain the unexplained in cosmology — these are mere ciphers that stand in for an absence of knowledge. Since I have mentioned the Deep State, I can’t help but observe the strange trajectory of this concept, which was once employed in geostrategic circles to explain the political structures of Turkey, and is now applied to the leading nation-states of the world. In any case, we could add the Deep State to Moloch, Goliath, and the cathedral as another attempt to infer some causal agent at work behind the scenes (and we could also add to this list the Vampire’s Castle).
Both Brett Weinstein and Neil Oliver are former normies who started to question the narrative spun by elite opinion institutions. Curtis Yarvin has also characterized himself in terms that could be reduced to former normiedom. Much in Yarvin can be dismissed as mere silliness, insofar as arguing for the US to be a monarchy is tone-deaf to the point of incoherence, but Yarvin is an entertaining writer and an accomplished raconteur, and with these talents he has won for his views an audience, albeit a marginal audience in comparison with elite opinion institutions. All of the people I have mentioned are candidates for being counter-elites according to the doctrine of elite overproduction (discussed in newsletter 227), and if any of them, or all of them in concert, use the novel tools of social media to construct a coalition that can rival the reach of elite opinion institutions, then the counter-elite will have well and truly arrived. It will remain only for the rival elites to struggle with each other for dominance, or for them to divvy up the world between them and come to some kind of understanding — diplomacy, deception, détente.
I have pointed out the similarities of Moloch, Goliath, and the cathedral, but there are ways in which these conceptions are fundamentally opposed. Moloch is characterized as catastrophic coordination failure, whereas the cathedral is all about nefarious coordination. So is coordination the problem, or is lack of coordination the problem? One of the classical liberal conceptions of government is that of the limitation of state power, and the attempt to embody this limitation of power through the separation of powers. A monolithic state is highly coordinated, but not something that we necessarily want. An internally divided state, mired in legislative gridlock, is deliberately uncoordinated, but we don’t necessarily want this either. Schmachtenberger warns against the internally divided state, while Yarvin warns against the monolithic state.
In all such matters one must always keep the Verneinung firmly in mind, i.e., the Freudian negation that emphatically says “No!” precisely because the answer is yes, but the true answer must be denied on pain of the psychological trauma of acknowledging and recognizing an unpleasant truth. Warning about “transparency” in governance is an instance of the Verneinung. As governments and NGOs have brought forward the idea of transparency, they have not become more transparent, but less. Layer upon layer of deflection and dissimulation intervene between public-facing pronouncements and facts on the ground. When “transparency” began to become a political talking point a few years ago this should have been seen as a red flag that we would be entering into an age of spectacular non-transparency, and that is what where we are now. There is a surface level of events, and a surface level of explanation, which is predictably shallow and largely unmoored from the facts that we see around us every day, and there are events developing beneath the surface, and attempted explanations of events that might be occurring beneath the surface, but since the events themselves cannot be clearly identified, the explanations are proportionately unclear and therefore unhelpful.
When I formerly blogged a lot about geostrategic issues, I often observed (especially in relation to espionage) that if something doesn’t make sense, this is an indication that important information is missing. Certainly both human beings and historical events can be profoundly irrational, and trying to make this irrationality make sense is mere folly, but when I say that “if something doesn’t make sense, information is missing” this already has irrationality “priced in” to the explanation. We know that crimes of passion are common, that some people pathologically seek power, that many individuals harm their own interests, that selfishness is often unenlightened even when there are options for enlightened self-interest to express itself, and so on. Acknowledging these uncomfortable realities is a prerequisite to understanding how the world works. When we acknowledge these things and still events make no sense, that is when we know that there is more going on than meets the eye.
After the First World War, among the many causes for the war identified was secret diplomacy. When the Bolsheviks came into power they made much of publishing the secret treaties of the Tsarist government. Wilson included as the first of his Fourteen Points, “Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.” There is almost a Kantian flavor about this, redolent of the provisions of Perpetual Peace; if diplomacy were to proceed frankly in the public view, it would cease to exist — diplomacy is the art of non-transparency. The problem with non-transparency (hence the problem with diplomacy) is much like the problem of censorship: censorship not only deprives the general population of knowledge, it also deprives every other sector of the population of knowledge, leading to decision making under avoidable conditions of ignorance. With non-transparency, no one really knows what’s going on. Even those who imagine themselves in the driver’s seat, confidently steering events, don’t really know what’s going on and are acting in ignorance of much that is directly significant to their agenda.